Iran has been hard hit by the coronavirus. By mid April 2020, the official statistics showed over 75,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths. Regime critics and media outlets surmised that the real number of infected and the death toll is much higher. One estimate is that the number of dead is at least four times the declared official numbers. Many of the pandemic outbreaks in neighboring countries can be traced back to Iran; indeed, one of the characteristics of the virus's proliferation in the Islamic Republic was how it initially spread through the regime's elite from an original epicenter in the holy city of Qom.
Much of the discourse on Iran in the past few months has been on the Trump administration's pressure campaign, on the sanctions (or the supposed need for sanctions relief), and on the coronavirus epidemic raging inside the country. Some in the Western media look at the stances of Western governments in the past few months and contrast them to what the press thinks should be done in responding to the pandemic. It is worth placing Tehran under a similar microscope and looking at the priorities of the Iranian regime in the past few months while thousands died.
That the regime in Iran has covered up the spread and nature of the pandemic has been well documented. Less attention has been given to the timeline of Iranian actions in the region as the virus spread at home. Undeterred for a moment by the health crisis, Iran has been active in trying to prevent its hard-won regional empire from unraveling.
Iran didn't postpone its parliamentary elections on February 21 as the pandemic spread. Nor did the outbreak delay its subversion and war in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. A crisis brought about by a new aggressive virus overlapped with aggressive new Iranian actions in the region implemented by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
In some cases, this activity has involved political action, such as in Lebanon and Iraq where the Tehran regime has tried to ensure governments in place (in January 2020 in Lebanon and April 2020 in Iraq) that are at least sympathetic if not servile to Iranian interests. They have succeeded in Lebanon by replacing pro-Hizbullah politicians by an even more slavishly pro-Hizbullah crowd. It is too early to tell how subservient the Iraqi government currently being formed by Prime Minister-designate Mustafa Al-Kadhimi could be. Iran's interest in hobbling hardy popular demonstrations in both countries has been helped immeasurably by lockdown methods used to combat the Covid19 virus.
Given that Iran is widely seen, through inaction and deception, as having spread the virus in the region, some of the regime's acts have been to try to burnish the virus-fighting credentials of its key forces, such as the IRGC, the Iraqi militias it controls, and Hizbullah. This has led to a burst of propaganda media production featuring these death squads performing health-related activities. Iran has also created and aggressively disseminated disinformation campaigns blaming the U.S. and Israel for the pandemic.
But while some of Iran's actions in the past months have focused on politics and propaganda, other activities have been more deadly. In Iraq, the liquidation of terror masters Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis by an American drone strike initially sparked competition between rival pro-Iranian militias over who would be more anti-American and could do more to force U.S. forces out of the country. Several rocket strikes against Coalition Forces located on Iraqi bases culminated in a March 11 strike on Taji base which killed three service members, two Americans and one British. The Americans retaliated the following day inside Iraq, while another strike seemed to hit Iraqi militias based in Syria. Since then, the tempo of Iranian-controlled militia provocations has measurably decreased.
Meanwhile in Syria, Iran, working with Russia and the Assad regime, pressed a brutal offensive in Idlib that began in December 2019 and peaked in February 2020. A million Syrians, many of them women and children, were displaced by the offensive, which showed no sign of slowing down. The elimination of the Idlib pocket, with both its Syrian rebel and terrorist forces and its more than two million civilians, many displaced by regime offensives elsewhere in Syria, seemed at hand. Hundreds of Iranian-controlled fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon participated in the offensive, portrayed by key regime advisor Ali Akbar Velayati as part of a final push to finish with anti-Assad forces everywhere, whether rebels in Idlib or Americans and their allies in Northeast Syria.
On February 27 – the same day that media reported that Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar was stricken with COVID19 – Russian/Assad forces killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike. The Turkish response was massive and militarily effective, with significant casualties among Assad forces, including many killed among the Iranian-controlled Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun militias. Hizbullah fighters and even Iranians were also among the dead. Had it not been for the lethal effectiveness of the Turkish response in March 2020, there is little doubt that the Idlib offensive would have continued just as Iran was being battered by the coronavirus.
Iran's military and terrorist actions in Iraq and Idlib in early 2020 were aimed at shoring up its presence and proxies in both countries (and driving enemies, including the Americans, out). In Lebanon, as the coronavirus raged throughout the region, Iran and Hizbullah focused on the war that was to come by upgrading Hizbullah's offensive arsenal through upgraded precision-guided munitions (PGMs). This single-minded focus on upgrading Iran's offensive capacity against Israel in order to overwhelm IDF air defense could well see the region descend into a dangerous "Missiles of Coronavirus" crisis at any time.
Upgrading Hizbullah missile technology is happening at exactly the same time that Lebanon – because of its dire economic crisis – and Iran – because of the coronavirus – are demanding economic assistance from the West. What an irony that, as Lebanon collapses into poverty and economic depression and Iran continues to battle waves of the pandemic, there is time and money enough to plant the seeds of future death and destruction. The strategy seems to be that Hizbullah and the IRGC, parasites feeding on their nation-state hosts, intend to pursue the regime's hegemonistic agenda while continuing to wage and plan for war no matter the health crisis raging around them.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of MBN or the U.S. government.
 Radiofarda.com/a/iran-s-coronavirus-coverup-figures-decisions/30538662.html, April 7, 2020.
 Carnegieendowment.org/2020/03/25/iran-s-coronavirus-disaster-pub-81367, March 25, 2020.
 Newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-iran-became-a-new-epicenter-of-the-coronavirus-outbreak, February 28, 2020.
 Forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2020/04/15/iran-linked-group-caught-spreading-covid-19-disinformation-on-facebook-and-instagram/#1088b4581f21, April 15, 2020.
 Rferl.org/a/iran-backed-fighters-killed-in-syria-air-strikes-after-iraq-base-attack/30483752.html, March 12, 2020.
 Washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/idlib-may-become-the-next-gaza-strip, March 26, 2020.
 Arabnews.pk/node/1637736/pakistan, February 5, 2020.
 Aijac.org.au/fresh-air/dr-jonathan-schanzer-to-aijac-webinar-2020-the-year-of-irans-precision-guided-missile, April 3, 2020.
 Aawsat.com/english/home/article/2233951/imf-projects-lebanons-economy-will-shrink-12-2020, April 14, 2020.