Iran’s coronavirus crisis exacerbates internal struggle between government and IRGC

IRGC IranA tense struggle is unfolding in Iran between the country’s civilian leaders and the parallel state of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The two entities are fighting about who will control the national response to COVID-19, according to sources. The outbreak of the pandemic in Iran followed closely that of China. Today the Iranian government claims the disease has infected no more than 115,000 people and killed fewer than 7,000. But these numbers seem low for a country of 82 million, and many observers dispute them.

The secrecy with which the government is treating the coronavirus epidemic may be masking an increasingly tense turf war between Iran’s civilian leaders, led by President Hassan Rouhani, and the IRGC. The latter is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Iran watchers describe the IRGC as a ‘praetorian guard’ whose members possess immense power and often wealth. Today the IRGC is a military force with a command structure that is distinct from that of Iran’s regular Armed Forces. It maintains its own army, navy and air force, has its own paramilitary and political protection units, and is in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.

The IRGC has seen its income fall drastically in the past two years, partly due to the continuing economic pressure that Iran is facing from strict sanctions imposed on it by the United States. The effects of the dramatic reduction in the value of Iran’s currency —down nearly 2/3 since 2018— have only been exacerbated by the monumental drop in global oil prices, which has practically decimated Tehran’s main source of foreign income.

According to sources, Khamenei and the IRGC forced the country’s civilian leadership to re-open the economy last month, fearing an absolute economic collapse. But this only resulted in a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in nearly every region of the country. The IRGC is now reportedly trying to take control of Iran’s civilian healthcare system, in an effort to prevent the government from disclosing the extent of the re-emergence of the virus throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the IRGC’s prestige has suffered greatly this year, following the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian civilian airliner over Tehran in January, which killed nearly 180 people, most of them Iranians. Last week, the IRGC was believed to behind a missile test that went terribly wrong, resulting in the destruction of an Iranian navy ship that killed as many as 31 sailors. These fatal errors are for the time being giving President Rouhani the right to question the IRGC’s competence and resist giving away his administration’s control of the national response to COVID-19. The turf war continues to intensify, however, and it is difficult to forecast which side will prevail.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: Will COVID-19 cause food shortages in the United States?

National Guard COVID-19The food supply chain in the United States has so far been able to endure the pressures caused by SARS-CoV-2. Grocery stores across the nation remain generally well-stocked, even if in some cases (like in Nevada and Arizona), the National Guard has been brought in to help with restocking. Shortages in certain types of foods, such as canned soup or pasta, are the result of unprecedented demand, rather than a breakdown in the food supply chain. Overall, therefore, there are no signs of systematic food shortages across the nation. However, disruptions —some of them severe— are likely to be experienced in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 IMPACT ON FARMS

Disruptions are likely to be felt first in the area of fresh produce, for two reasons. First, because large agricultural facilities are beginning to experience major shortages in personnel, as seasonal farmworkers —most of them from Central and South America— are unable to travel north due to the cessation of international travel in the Americas. Second, because —just like medical personnel across the country— agricultural workers are facing severe shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), which is essential for keeping them healthy in a pandemic. Until now, major Q QuoteCOVID-19 outbreaks have been occurring in densely populated urban centers. But as the disease continues to spread, it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches rural farming areas and enters farms, which are the beginning of the food supply chain. Many automated agricultural facilities, such as grain and soybean operations in the American Midwest, do not require large numbers of human laborers, and will thus suffer little disruption from the spread of the pandemic. However, this is not the case with fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes or grapes, which require human pickers to extract them. The progression of the disease in rural regions of Florida and California, which produce over 20% of total US agricultural value, will be a critical factor. As an illustration, is worth pointing out that two farms in California supply over 85% of all carrots in the US market. If COVID-19 affects the production and distribution capacity of global producers of fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Florida-based Fresh Del Monte Produce, the ramifications are likely to be felt across the world for more than a year.

AGRICULTURAL DISRUPTIONS IN WESTERN EUROPE

Western Europe, which is ahead of the US in the spread of the disease, is already experiencing unprecedented disruptions in agricultural production. The closing of international borders has prevented millions of seasonal farmworkers from Eastern Europe, whom agricultural facilities in Western Europe rely on to pick fruits and vegetables each year, from traveling west. Italy and Britain havQ Quotee begun issuing calls for unemployed workers to form “land armies” and volunteer to pick produce in farms. The French government has called “for hairdressers, waiters, florists and others temporarily unable to work” due to the pandemic “to head to the nation’s fields and start picking”. And in Germany, the authorities have launched a website that solicits volunteers to work in farms across the nation. However, as only 16,000 have volunteered so far, the German government is now working on a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to make up the remaining 284,000 farmworkers that are needed to salvage this year’s crop.

DISRUPTION IN THE GLOBAL FOOD EXPORT SYSTEM

It is unrealistic to expect that these glitches will not eventually make their way to the US. Moreover, just like Western Europe, the US relies heavily on imported foods. The global nature of the pandemic is also beginning to cause major disruptions in food exports, as air and ship cargo dwindles dramatically. Already, the shortage of refrigerated containers used to transport meat and other food supplies from China to North America has prompted a drop in imports of over 25%. Meanwhile, India, which is the world’s largest exporter of rice, has completely halted exports due to logistical problems and labor shortages caused by the pandemic. The world’s second and third largest exporters of rice, Thailand and Vietnam, are likely to soon follow suit. Kazakhstan, which is among the world’s largest exporters of wheat flour, has now banned all exports of that product. Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee, sugar and soybeans in the world, has warned that it is facing an unprecedented shortage of farmworkers, truck drivers, and even spare parts for farm equipment. And Russia, which is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, has said that it will soon be forced to severely restrict exports for the same reasons as Brazil. These developments prompted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to warn last week that food shortages, coupled with growing trade barriers between nations, “will create extreme volatility” in global food supply. Read more of this post

Analysis: No, the coronavirus was not bioengineered. The rumors are false

Coronavirus COVID-19Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, in December of last year, prominent public health scientists have consistently condemned rumors that it may have been bioengineered. The scientists are right to persist. The rumors that the novel coronavirus was deliberately weaponized are not supported by the available scientific evidence.

Coronaviruses are not new in nature or to humans. SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-associated coronavirus 2) is only the latest coronavirus we have identified that infects humans and causes disease (COVID-19). Because other corona viruses have also been isolated, it is possible to sequence the genome of these viruses. This provides detailed information about their origins. This is particularly important in light of the rumors that this virus has been manipulated by various governments.

Similar to the SARS-CoV strain, the one responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), this novel virus also binds to a protein, the receptor for angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is found on cells in humans, in the lungs, kidneys, GI tract, heart, and bladder. The virus uses a “spike protein” to attach to the receptor protein on cells in these regions, and then punctures the cell to inject the viral nucleic acids (genetic material). Once inside the cell, the virus nucleic acids are reproduced by the cell, and new viruses are manufactured.

When scientists analyzed the nucleic acids sequence responsible for attaching to cells, they found that the sequence was optimal, but not ideal. This means that the virus can recognize and bind tightly to the ACE2 receptor protein, but it is not perfect. This is analogous to having an old key (spike protein) that will fit into a lock (ARE2 receptor), but does not always work properly (open the door). In bioengineering, the goal is to have the perfect key so that all of the virus can enter cells and reproduce rapidly. This perfect fit is not found in SARS-CoV-2. This provides evidence of natural selection, and not of bioengineering.

Additionally, the SARS-CoV-2 genome has a unique amino acid in an important region of the spike protein. This amino acid, a proline, has an unusual structural characteristic that causes a protein to make a sharp change in direction (a turn). This is not seen in the SARS-CoV, the closest genetic relative to SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, when the sequence for the SARS-CoV-2 is compared to other coronaviruses, the SARS-CoV-2 sequence does not appear to be derived from previously sequenced viruses. This fact also points to natural selection, since a bioengineered virus would be based on a known template that could be easily manufactured in a laboratory.

Rather it appears, from genetic and biochemical analysis, that SARS-CoV-2 started in bats, moved to pangolins, and then to humans. It is unclear whether the evolutionary changes that gave rise to the SARS-CoV-2 variant changed once it entered pangolins from bats, or whether it entered humans and continued evolving into the strain we see today. While the evidence indicates that it is highly unlikely that the virus was bioengineered, it is impossible to determine whether it entered humans in its present form, or evolved once it crossed the species barrier.

Author: Dr. A.T. | Date: 24 March 2020 | Permalink

Coronavirus: Comparing America’s bungling fiasco with Taiwan’s stunning success

Coronavirus Task ForceThe coronavirus (COVID-19) is quickly becoming the greatest security challenge of our time. The ease of transmission and high death rate of this disease, coupled with the asymmetric challenges it poses to our planet’s social, economic and political structures, threaten the very cohesion of our global system. This is especially true of Western societies, whose highly sophisticated organizational features make them especially susceptible to all forms of large-scale disruption. Few of those of us who are alive today in the West have ever faced a threat with the all-encompassing characteristics, disruptive capacity and persistent nature of COVID-19.

But no American would get this impression by watching the daily briefings of the so-called White House “Coronavirus Task Force”. The uncomfortable smiles and awkward acquiescence of its members, part of an unconvincing effort to assure Americans that “all is well”, coupled with their seemingly unending competition to offer lavish praises to each other, make for a truly uncomfortable viewing experience. Such astounding manifestations of mediocrity would be somewhat tolerable if they came alongside actionable information that Americans could use to protect themselves and the future of their country —preferably something beyond “washing your hands for at least 20 seconds”.

On February 26, Americans were told by their president that “within a couple of days [COVID-19 cases in the US would] be down close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done”. By that time, China was feverishly implementing the largest quarantine in human history. Ten days later, Italy began to quarantine 16 million people —a quarter of its population— in its northern regions. Meanwhile, Britain has begun re-hiring retired nurses to prepare for the coming unprecedented wave of medical emergencies, while France has banned all large meetings in its territory. But in America it’s business as usual: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced on Sunday that all its tournament games nationwide will be held with fans despite growing concerns about the coronavirus. Not a single senior government official has stepped forward to address Americans’ growing anxiety about the potentially unprecedented degree of disruption that the US economy, including the nation’s supply chain, healthcare, transportation, education, entertainment, and services sectors are going to be experiencing in the coming months.

Additionally, Americans expect the so-called “Task Force” to provide non-politicized explanations of the ongoing failures of the US government’s treatment to the COVID-19 crisis, which continue to allow the virus to spread in our communities unabated. For instance, why did the US decline to use the World Health Organization’s diagnostic test for the disease, which had been made available to dozens of nations by the end of January? Or why does access to testing kits remain at alarmingly low levels, so much so that a frustrated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently described the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to COVID-19 as “flat-footed”? So grave is this situation, that on March 8 The Washington Examiner —arguably America’s leading conservative publication— opined that COVID-19 “is exposing how deeply unsuited [Donald Trump] is to deal with a genuine crisis that he can’t bluff his way through”.

The American government’s tragically incompetent response to COVID-19 (at this point just slightly better than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s) hurts even more when one compares it with that of Taiwan —an island nation of 23 million, which the US often views as a client state. In January, when COVID-19 began making news headlines, experts predicted that Taiwan would end up with the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. This was primarily due to the country’s geographical proximity to mainland China —just 81 miles from the Chinese shore— as well as the extensive transportation network that links the two nations. Over 1.2 million Taiwanese either live permanently or work in China, while nearly 3 million Chinese citizens visit Taiwan every year. Even more ominously, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred right before the Lunar New Year, which is the busiest travel season for both Chinese and Taiwanese holidaymakers.

But Taiwan has managed to spectacularly defy all early predictions about a potential COVID-19 epidemic. As a group of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, RAND Corporation and the Koo Foundation in Taiwan, explain in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the reason dates back to 2003. That year’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak prompted the Taiwanese government to establish the National Health Command Center (NHCC). Since then, the NHCC has operated as a central command system that coordinates the activities of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center, the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Center, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Center, and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Center. Intelligence collected and analyzed by these centers is quickly distributed to central, regional and local authorities in all parts of the country.

The authors explain that, on December 31, the day when the World Health Organization notified national authorities of the first accounts of a severe pneumonia with unknown causes in the Chinese city of Wuhan, NHCC personnel began to board planes arriving from Wuhan. They began testing all passengers and crew on those planes for flu-like symptoms before allowing them to deplane. By January 5, NHCC personnel were reaching out to anyone who had traveled to Wuhan in the past fortnight and testing them for flu-like symptoms. By that time, the NHCC had already set up a nationwide toll-free hotline, which has since become decentralized to serve individual regions.

On January 27, the NHCC worked in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) to integrate the database containing the recent travel history of passengers with their NHIA identification card data. They also integrated the same database with national tourism and immigration data. Within 24 hours, the NHCC was reaching out to all citizens of Taiwan, as well as tourists and immigrants, who had traveled to the Wuhan region during the previous month. Using this big-data analytics approach, Taiwanese authorities were able to generate real-time alerts that were sent to individual doctors for use during clinical visits, so that clinical symptoms could be matched with patients’ travel histories.

Those who had traveled to regions of China that were considered high-risk, were immediately quarantined at home for 14 days. Their movements were tracked through their mobile phones to ensure compliance with quarantine instructions. Meanwhile, all those who exhibited flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for influenza in weeks prior, were re-tested for COVID-19.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that, by March 9, Taiwan —located just 81 miles off the coast of China— had just 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a single death. Importantly, this is not because the Taiwanese are not testing their citizens —unlike the US or, even more outrageously, Turkey, which continues to report zero cases of COVID-19. Taiwan has tested more people than all of the nations of the Americas combined. The low number of COVID-19 cases in Taiwan is due to one thing, and one thing alone: a preemptive approach to the security of the nation by an enlightened leadership and a forward-thinking government system. Which is precisely what the US lacks at this grave time for the nation’s future.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is associate professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post