P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 23 MARCH, 2020
Cold War Over Coronavirus
Old wars, new issue
The coronavirus has been an unprecedented leveler in an unequal world, threatening to spread across the globe with equal virulence. This is a situation which should lead to warring and disputing nations to bury the hatchet at least temporarily to tackle an agent of global destruction. But that is not happening.
Conflicts are continuing with the same virulence as before. The situation created by the corona virus has itself becoming a theater of the Cold War. The old US vs China/Russia conflict and the US-Iran conflict are now over which country caused the virus and which country should makes amends and how. The feuding nations are the same, only the issue is new.
In the beginning, the US succeeded in spreading the view that China had nurtured and spread the virus by not regulating its huge wildlife market, not campaigning against certain Chinese food habits, and spreading it across the world through its global economic reach. But within a month after China successfully contained the spread of the virus within its borders, it became aggressive and accused the US army of creating the virus with an intention to use it as a biological weapon.
China now says that COVID-19 is an American disease that might have been introduced by members of the US Army who visited Wuhan in October 2019 to participate in the World Military Games there. The US had sent 280 personnel in 17 teams as participants. According to New York Times, this insinuation came in a series of tweets by Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Zhao asked the US to come clean on its own data on the spread of the virus in the US.
Zhao’s tweets were apparently a retort to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s description of the coronavirus as “Wuhan virus”. And at least one Senator hinted darkly that the epidemic began with the leak of a Chinese biological weapon, NYT said.
It is noted that Iran, a target of US ire for long, has been hit particularly hard. Over 1000 have died, and government officials, including about 10 % of Iran’s parliament and various health officials such as Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, have tested positive.
Patrick Tucker, writing in the US defense website “Defense One” notes that Iran has most aggressively pushed “fake news” about the illness blaming the US brazenly. Iranian State-backed PressTV repeatedly broadcast the theory that the “COVID-19 might be an US manufactured bioweapon, or that Israeli and Zionist scientists had used the epidemic as a cover to engineer an even more deadly strain of the virus to spring on humanity, and specifically on Iran.”
Tucker goes on to say that the source of the claim was an interview between “conspiracy theorist” radio host, Alex Jones, and human rights lawyer Francis Boyle. The interview was carried on the conspiracy website “Nature News”, from where PressTV picked it up. According to Tucker, in the interview to Jones, Boyle claims that the US developed the SARS virus as a bioweapon, citing a 2015 peer-reviewed paper from researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But the paper does not make that claim. Rather, it shows a cluster of bat coronaviruses with potential to infect humans, Tucker says.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer writing for the Moscow-backed Strategic Culture Foundation, pointed out there are some regions in China with more bats than Wuhan, but those regions had fewer cases of COVID-19. Russia’s channel ‘Russia Today’ quoted Hossein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claiming that the virus was a US weapon aimed at Iran and China, the worst-hit countries.
Tucker points out that the US has been making similar charges against China. Senator Tom Cotton ( R-Ark.) had suggested that the virus was the result of a botched Chinese bioweapons program. Cotton did not rule out the possibility that the coronavirus might have been developed by the Chinese in a "super-laboratory." He charged that Beijing had not been forthcoming about the number of infections and was "lying about it from the very beginning".
US-Iran Conflict Shifts To Virus
Meanwhile, the US-Iran conflict has shifted from the military battlefield to the battle over US humanitarian aid to Iran, the hardest hit by the coronavirus after China. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said on Sunday, that the US proposal to provide Iran with medical aid to fight the coronavirus may be a “conspiracy as the United States is accused of producing the virus and it is said that part of the virus was produced to infect the Iranian people.”
Addressing Iranians on TV on the occasion of Nowroz Khamenei said: "So far, Americans have said several times that they are ready to provide Iran with medical assistance. That's one of those weird words. The United States is accused of producing the virus. I do not know how true this claim is. If it is true, why should we trust them and get help from them?"
Addressing US leaders, Khamenei said: "You may send us medicine that will make the virus last, and this is not unlikely. You may send physicians for treatment so they can see the effects of the virus in Iranian society.”
US Sanctions and Prisoners’ Release
US-Iran relations, troubled for long, have worsened over the release of prisoners and further heightened over humanitarian aid. The US says that Iran must first release Americans and Iranian-American dual citizens who had been “unjustly” jailed there before humanitarian aid could be considered. US Secretary of State Pompeo has asked Western nations wanting to send humanitarian aid to Iran to do so only after Tehran releases the prisoners.
In a tit for tat, the Iranians say that the US will also have to release Iranians held in America. But Washington rejects this saying that while the Iranians in US jails had gone through the due legal process, Americans and dual citizens in Iranian jails were victims of arbitrary action. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had said in April 2019, that Iran had indeed offered to swap prisoners earlier, but the US was unresponsive.
The US has continued it’s hardline. On March 17, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US has imposed fresh sanctions on Iran to bring its oil exports to zero. Iran’s oil exports had already come down from 2.3 million barrels per day to 100,000 bpd in mid-2019. Pompeo blacklisted nine entities based in South Africa, Hong Kong and China, as well as three Iranian individuals, for engaging in transactions in violation of existing sanctions. In addition, the US Commerce Department said it will add six people - including five Iranian nuclear scientists and 18 corporations to the US – to the “Entity List” for aiding Iran’s nuclear program.
There are exemptions for humanitarian aid in the US sanctions regime. But according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in practice, these exemptions have failed to motivate US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. Thus Iranians were denied access to essential medicines.
In May 2019, Atlantic Council had noted that “despite the fact that sanctions exempted humanitarian goods, the US Treasury Department had previously prosecuted medical companies for selling small amounts of medical supplies to Iran, which in turn, has had a deterring effect on other companies doing business with Tehran.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the world can no longer be silent as US “Economic Terrorism” is supplemented by “Medical Terrorism." According to Iranian President Rouhani, US sanctions have directly damaged the Iranian economy to the tune of US$ 200 billion in the past two years. In December 2019, a country-wide agitation against rise in fuel prices in Iran had resulted in 208 deaths.
Anti-US countries have come to Iran’s aid. The Russian Foreign Ministry has condemned the US sanctions against Iran at this juncture as “anti-human” and alleged that the US is purposely hindering Iranian resistance to the virus. “The global pandemic is not a time for settling geopolitical accounts, especially those that have no basis, invented in Washington for the purpose of satisfying its ambitions,” Moscow said. China has also called for the lifting of US sanctions.
In a surprising move, UK and France have broken ranks with the US on the issue of humanitarian aid. While France and Iran swapped prisoners, the UK repaid a disputed debt in a gesture of goodwill towards Iran.
Cover Photograph: Xi Jinping visits Wuhan