They have already sent more personnel to Iraq than the U.S. sent to Afghanistan and their leaders use the threat of an Ebola pandemic to make a powerful case for limiting dissent. Now, the Revolutionary Guard has used the perception of a pandemic to gin up a culture of political fear and distrust that could bolster its power and stifle dissent.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Khosrow Afghahi, who worked with Iranian leaders on developing Iran’s strategic response to Ebola, argues that there are clear lessons for U.S. foreign policy from Iran’s strategy in Iraq. The overarching lesson: Presidents in both the U.S. and Iran should consider stopping the spread of emerging diseases before they become a major crisis.
Afghahi’s Iran-Iraq initiative, which involved a pair of Iranian parliamentary meetings with the Prime Minister of Iraq, came at the same time that U.S. military officials began to discuss the prospects of a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, warned in February 2007 of a “soft landing” in that embattled country if the American public felt threatened. He told Congress that it could become a prime recruiting ground for the Sunni insurgency and an opportunity for al-Qaeda in Iraq to regain strength.
On April 1, 2007, President Bush called the spread of infectious diseases “one of the most serious threats to global health” and announced a plan to marshal the world’s scientific and technological resources to prevent their spread.
By next year, the U.S. would have deployed 1,100 military engineers to fight Ebola, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss the issue.
“In the course of time, we were able to take the pulse of public opinion and minimize the amount of spread of those diseases,” said Afghahi, who will be traveling to D.C. and speaking at a conference next week. “The reason that strategy worked so well is, they were able to ask questions, create consensus, have a receptive ear of people.”
Iran was successful at publicizing the Ebola threat so far as it was political, but Afghahi stressed it won’t work the same way in the event that a pandemic breaks out.
“In today’s world, that news is considered harmful,” he said. “A lot of people were against the plan before it got publicized. People were very protective of their money and their families.”
For now, the Iranian response is carried out behind the scenes, as its own nuclear program proceeds.
Afghahi said Iran can leverage the post-conflict experience it gained in Iraq to “position itself as an effective country that can take care of its own,” and “really find ways to educate the people in the city and help them rebuild and become economically self-sufficient.”
However, given Iran’s rhetoric in the region, Afghans and Iraqis should be prepared for a jihadist response to a disease, he said. “This does a number of things for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. It limits the damage and cuts the social fabric of the country.”