The End of Politics

It’s been a while since I last updated, so I suppose I should start with a brief explanation of why that is. Way back when, in what now seems like decades ago but was only January, I deliberately stepped away from blogging to take care of a few other side projects I needed to finish. Among those was a paper on populist securitization that I was presenting at the International Studies Association (ISA) annual conference in Hawaii, a course on Iranian foreign policy I was set to teach at Georgetown over the summer, and making progress toward getting my thesis published as a standalone book. By the end of February, all three seemed to be going pretty well. I was nearly done with the paper (and getting excited about Hawaii in the process), the course was getting decent registration numbers, and the book was garnering some initial attention from publishers.

Then, everything stopped.

You already know the reason. The novel coronavirus has totally upended life as we know it. As I write this, I’m on my thirty-fifth day of devout social distancing practice. My wife and I only leave our apartment for neighborhood walks, food, and little else. By the middle of March, the ISA conference had been canceled, and preparations for the summer term at Georgetown had shifted entirely to virtual instruction (something I didn’t want to do for a new seminar course). I’m hoping that the book publication is still in the works, although I’m sympathetic to editors and readers who might be preoccupied with concerns other than a manuscript about Israel-Iran relations.

With all my near term projects suspended for the foreseeable future, I considered a return to blogging. There was, however, one small problem: international politics isn’t really happening right now either. Sure, there are issues related to the coronavirus that are relevant to international relations, such as the competition for PPE, the race to find an effective treatment (or, in the case of the United States, shady attempts to purchase one and keep it for yourself), and the great power blame game taking place between the United States and China. But international politics, at least in its former, universally understood sense, is on lockdown with the rest of us. 

Iran, the nominal topic of this blog, was among the hardest and earliest affected nations in facing this new crisis. The virus was quick to infiltrate not only the country but also many of its most valued institutions. It took root in the holy city of Qom, the seat of the Iranian clergy, before making its way into the upper echelons of government. The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, took ill on national television (he eventually recovered), while a shocking number of parliamentarians became infected. Several political officials have already died from the virus.

While the United States and China attempt to cast the blame for the outbreak on each other, the sources of widespread contagion and medical system duress are less ambiguous in Iran. The Iranian government was, like virtually every other nation in the world, too slow to take aggressive action in response to the virus’s spread, including shutting down travel, commerce, and social gatherings, leading to an explosion in cases across the country.

Yet unlike the majority of other countries, Iran is also contending with crippling American economic sanctions, which the Trump administration is still aggressively enforcing despite widespread international calls for relief. These measures are, unsurprisingly, significantly inhibiting Iran’s ability to deal with the crisis and care for its citizens. As horrifying as the numbers coming out of Iran are right now, the actual figures are undoubtedly worse than what’s being officially reported. Nearly every Iran-watcher has written some version of the same article, cataloging how the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of regime collapse via economic starvation is killing thousands of the very people the United States claims it wants to help. Some of them continue, credulously, to make overtures to the Trump administration to seize this opportunity as the basis for a diplomatic opening to Iran. (Meanwhile, right-wing “analysts” are busy pumping out content cheering on the sanctions, hoping, as ever, that continued economic misery combined with the horrors of the pandemic will hasten the downfall of the regime.)

If there is even the slightest hint of a silver lining here, it lies in the Iranian people’s fortitude in the face of danger. In an emotional and historical sense, Iran may be better prepared for what lies ahead than many of its global peers. Iran has known more than its fair share of national tragedy and struggle in the recent past. The terrible price, both human* and financial, of the Iran-Iraq war left an indelible image on the country and its people. The dead literally overlook the nation as images of the martyrs stare out from billboards scattered throughout the country, stark reminders of too many lives lost too soon. There are living reminders, as well. Many Iranians who were exposed to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks are still alive today. The lingering effects of those attacks on their health, and their respiratory system, in particular, puts them at increased risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

I don’t know what the future holds for Iran — or any of the rest of us, for that matter. We’re in uncharted territory now, and I, like many others, can only speculate. For Iran, I suspect that this crisis, when it ends, will do little to soften the country’s outlook on the world, and the West in particular. Perhaps in the early days of the crisis, there was a brief window of opportunity for Europe to make an overture to Iran, to demonstrate that they genuinely were on the side of the Iranian people despite whatever disagreements they might have had with the regime and its nuclear activities. But that moment is likely gone. Europe has its own problems to deal with now, and thousands of Iranians will be left dead where it doesn’t count.


*I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the official death toll of the war and whether or not it comes anywhere close to the oft-cited one million lives figure frequently quoted by many scholars, journalists, and other prominent figures. Regardless of the actual number, the narrative of the conflict and the collective price paid by the nation for defeating the Iraqis — including withstanding Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks — remains a salient narrative in Iranian political and historical thought.