How has coronavirus changed the Iranian threat to Israel?

Will the fact that Iran has been hit so hard in the coronavirus crisis, and the economic aftershocks that go with it, change the nature of its threat to Israel?

An Iranian Officer of Revolutionary Guards, with Israel flag drawn on his boots, is seen during graduation ceremony, held for the military cadets in a military academy, in Tehran, Iran June 30, 2018 (photo credit: TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An Iranian Officer of Revolutionary Guards, with Israel flag drawn on his boots, is seen during graduation ceremony, held for the military cadets in a military academy, in Tehran, Iran June 30, 2018
Despite the coronavirus crisis nearly monopolizing the world’s attention, Iran managed to draw some focus last week, successfully launching a satellite into orbit using ballistic missile technology.
This step towards developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons took place as Iran crossed the threshold of 5,000 deaths from coronavirus.
As of Sunday, over 90,000 citizens of the Islamic Republic had contracted COVID-19 and 5,710 died, according to official reports, which Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and others have said are much lower than the true numbers.
Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East and its government has faced accusations that, like its patron China, it has covered up the extent of the disease's spread.
Tehran is not immune from the economic distress that has hit much of the rest of the world due to lockdown measures to stem the coronavirus' spread. The Iranian economy was already in trouble due to the American "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign which, contrary to what many have said, does not preclude the shipment of humanitarian and medical aid. Coronavirus shelter-at-home instructions harmed sectors that had not felt the sanctions’ impact. Add to that the deep plunge of oil prices – a sector that was already suffering because of sanctions – and this adds up to a major blow to Iran's economy.
Will the fact that Iran has been hit so hard in the coronavirus crisis, and the economic aftershocks that go with it, change the nature of its threat to Israel?
Last week’s successful missile launch, which made the Islamic Republic one of only about a dozen countries to carry out orbital launches, indicates what many experts have been saying: Not really.
Foreign Ministry Director of Policy, Planning and Assessment Uri Resnick said “it’s clear that the Iranian economy is in great distress and the coronavirus crisis is making it worse. That makes it harder for them to try to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. From this aspect, it could weaken their malign influence.”
However, if Tehran feels “their backs are to the wall, it could promote negative behavior,” he said.
Resnick concluded that “despite the humanitarian and health crisis, we do not see a sign that they have abandoned their behavior” when it comes to nuclear development and sponsoring terrorism.
In addition, Resnick said “there is a danger and concern about the world being distracted.”
Another matter is pressure for the US to reduce sanctions because of the health crisis.
“Humanitarian aid is an exception from the sanctions and the US even offered them aid, which the Iranians rejected,” Resnick said. “Pressure on Iran should not be released. They have enough resources to deal with the crisis if they wanted. For example, they could have put the good of their citizens before their nuclear project.”
Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren argued that “counterintuitively, chances of war [with Iran or its proxies] could be enhanced rather than diminished because of coronavirus.”
Iran is waiting until after the US presidential election in November before making major decisions about it and its proxies moves towards Israel, he said.
US President Donald Trump’s reelection would mean “more of the same, which is an unsustainable situation for the Iranian regime.
“I don’t think four more years of these sanctions is survivable, especially when the regime is facing a severe economic crisis,” he said. “If Trump wins, Tehran will have to make a choice. Either go into negotiations from a disadvantageous position and make major concessions, or try to trigger some kind of conflict, especially when the US is vulnerable” from the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.
If Iran or its proxies launch a major attack, Israel may not be able to rely on the US as much as usual, in part because the Trump administration is reticent to get involved in any kind of war, even more so if the economy is suffering, Oren argued. According to Oren, Iran would prefer a proxy conflict rather than a direct one with Israel.
If negotiations take place between the US and Iran, the worst scenario for Israel would be if they are “concluded without meeting our fundamental needs,” Oren said. “Trump could declare a victory and leave Iran with capabilities that threaten Israel’s security.”
If negotiations take place, Israel should make its needs public, he argued. Those interests would include dismantling the nuclear program, “not mothballing parts of it,” coming clean on past nuclear activities, unlimited inspections, ending the intercontinental ballistic missile program, ending its support for terrorism and ending attempts to murder Israelis and destroy the State of Israel. Oren cited a list of conditions US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delineated for lifting sanctions as very similar to what Israel would need.
“The fact that we never said what a good deal would look like in the Obama years enabled them to say no deal would be good enough for the Israelis. We can’t be in that situation again,” Oren said.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden would “lift the sanctions and restore the nuclear agreement,” Oren also said, in light of statements Biden has made about Iran.
A Biden victory would probably mean that tens of millions of dollars will flow into Iran, allowing its economy to rebound, and Iran will be able to produce dozens of nuclear bombs within a short time, due to the sunset clauses in the world powers’ nuclear agreement, the former ambassador said.
American experts were more optimistic than Israelis, with US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook saying that Iran is far less capable of threatening Israel these days.
“The Iranian regime is desperate,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It was losing its influence in the region even before the COVID-19 outbreak. The effectiveness of the [American] maximum pressure campaign sharply cut Iran’s ability to fund its proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas which threaten Israel. The elimination of  [Quds Force commander Qasem] Soleimani deprived the regime of its most influential operator.”
Now, in light of the coronavirus’s spread, Hook said Iran has become a “pariah” because it continued Mahan Air flights to China even after the outbreak began.
“Extortion is the only thing the regime has left in its arsenal, but the international community is losing its appetite for the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism,” he stated.
Another Trump administration source argued that since Soleimani’s assassination, Iran is more hesitant to be as provocative with Israel as it had been.
At the same time, the source said that while “there’s desperation…they have fewer and fewer resources to turn to” in Iran, they do not seem to want to reconsider their policies.
The impact of their economic crisis has been mostly felt by Iran’s proxies who are “receiving less money and fewer weapons, which makes it harder [for Tehran] to maintain a grip on the region. They have less influence because of the maximum pressure campaign.”
Trump’s second national security adviser, HR McMaster, cited an ongoing legitimacy crisis for the Iranian regime, pointing to the regular demonstrations and strikes in the months ahead of the pandemic, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported last week.
Pandemics “weaken the hands of authoritarian leaders,” McMaster said, in that democracies can respond to criticism and debate by changing their path, while authoritarians do not have that option, but if Iranian citizens “lose faith in their leader, the only recourse is revolution or coup,” Lake wrote.
Similarly, Oren Anolik, Head of the Policy Planning Bureau in the Foreign Ministry said Iranian anger at their government’s behavior in response to the pandemic could be a positive thing for Israel.
“There is very low trust by Iranian people in their government. Maybe it’ll bring about political change,” he said.
“But,” Anolik added, “a destabilized government might take more extreme steps to ensure its continued existence.”