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Politicization of a National Crisis: The New Face of Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign on Iran

Workers disinfect Vakil bazaar of Shiraz against the spread of coronavirus on March 4th/ Credit: Mohammadreza Farbood/Fars News

The Iranian authorities have to address the legitimate demands of the Iranian people and understand that the current legitimacy crisis in Iran allows the country to be an easy target for foreign-funded information war. Whether it is coronavirus or any other national crisis, Washington will not miss its chance to play politics with Tehran.

This article was originally published on Responsible Statecraft

By Younes Zangiabadi

Iran has the second greatest number of deaths from the coronavirus outbreak outside of China. According to the latest official statistics, Tehran has confirmed 124 deaths and 4,747 cases of infections from this epidemic virus. Iran has also been the main source of dozens of cases in countries from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bahrain to the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. The more concerning part is that it is quite difficult to verify the validity of Iran’s official figures as the government may be well downplaying the urgency of the outbreak in the country.

This ongoing humanitarian crisis has now reached the United States with New York City confirming its first case of Coronavirus, a woman who has traveled to Iran. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has had no reservations to politicize the coronavirus outbreak as part of its maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. While it might seem that the recent U.S. offers of humanitarian assistance to Iran is a positive step in supporting the country in its endeavor to manage the ongoing crisis, its messaging is intentionally crafted in such a politicized and condescending manner that no country on earth — let alone Iran — would accept it.

At last week’s congressional hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. government has made offers to help Iran whilst criticizing its healthcare infrastructure and its willingness to share information about the situation on the ground. Brian Hook, U.S. special envoy for Iran, rolled out a similar offer, stating that the U.S. is assessing ways in which it could assist “Iranian people” as he made it clear that it is yet the primary responsibility of the government to deal with the outbreak inside the country.

Expectedly, this kind of offer was immediately bashed by Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi, calling it “ridiculous, and political-psychological game,” referring to the U.S. sanctions as the main barriers in the way of Iran to purchase medical equipment and medicines including test kits for coronavirus. Iranian newspaper Etemaad Daily soon reported that the U.S. offer of assistance remains at a rhetorical level as they have not yet permitted Iran to use its funds to import much-needed medical materials through the humanitarian Swiss channel that became operational last month.

In reality, the Swiss channel is still very much controlled by the Trump administration, determining when the humanitarian goods can or can’t reach Iran. Therefore, it does not simply provide a neutral and functional mechanism for humanitarian trade in practice. Instead, it works as a defusing tool to divert pressure from the humanitarian impacts of U.S. sanctions on Iran and directs it at the Iranian government for its own incompetence in managing national crises.

Lately, the Trump administration’s public diplomacy has been centered around strategic and direct communication of politicized and caring-flavored messages to the Iranian people whilst completely dismissing and bypassing the ruling government there. Whether it’s Trump tweeting in Farsi or Pompeo appearing regularly on London-based Persian TV satellites, the objective is to complement the economic, political, and diplomatic war against Iran with an organized psychological warfare that provokes dissidence and foments popular unrest in order to ramp up internal pressure on Iran.

Psychological operation (PSYOP) is a form of information war that is defined as “planned operations to convey selected information to foreign audiences to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals,” which is often achieved through creation of dissidence and disaffection within their ranks and society. There are three key reasons that the U.S. government has recently chosen to capitalize on PSYOP in the case of Iran among other foreign policy tools.

First, the U.S. unilateral sanctions have reached their maximum capacity to induce any change in Iran’s behavior. Second, Trump has proved to have no interests in a direct military confrontation with Iran, amid recent heightened tensions between the two countries. Third, Iran’s decades of censorship, blocking online communication platforms, and monopolization over the flow of information, have led to unprecedented distrust in the government and produced this suspicious environment in which a large portion of the population would rather get their news from Persian media sources outside Iran which are mostly funded by foreign governments including the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Consequently, this makes Iran the perfect case for the PSYOP as it provides the U.S. with the best window of opportunity to effectively and cheaply communicate its politicized and self-serving information directly to the people of Iran. With 85 percent of the population having access to the internet, the Trump administration can, for the first time, seriously challenge the government’s narrative about a variety of issues important to Iranians from sanctions and human rights to the civilian airliner shot down and coronavirus. Ultimately, this further widens the already divided Iranian society, which fills the government with fear of unknown consequences such as regime change and internal chaos. The Trump administration presumes that Tehran — under these circumstances — will be forced to negotiate a what so-called “better deal” with the United States.

Even though this strategy has not yet successfully completed its mission, it has surely targeted Iran’s weakest spot, which is its incapability to counter an information war during crises in the country. The best evidence of this vulnerability is Iran’s week-long and unprecedented shutdown of the country’s entire internet network in order to suppress the nation-wide demonstration over rising gasoline prices. While internet disruption might defuse the protests in the short-term for Iran, it certainly causes more damage to the rulers’ legitimacy and image in the long term.

The Iranian authorities also fully understand that they cannot afford to merely disconnect the whole population from the internet every time they face a national crisis. They have to address the legitimate demands of the Iranian people and understand that the current legitimacy crisis in Iran allows the country to be an easy target for foreign-funded information war.

Whether it is coronavirus or any other national crisis, Washington will not miss its chance to play politics with Tehran. Thus, Iranian leaders need to rebuild trust with their people and relax securitization of Iranian society if they want to thwart the Trump administration’s well-organized information warfare against the country.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor