“The economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to create or worsen instability in at least a few—and perhaps many—countries, as people grow more desperate in the face of interlocking pressures that include sustained economic downturns, job losses, and disrupted supply chains,” the report warns.
That dire economic picture boosts the risk of internal conflicts, surges in cross-border migration and even the collapse of national governments, officials warned.
The report, known as the Annual Threat Assessment, is typically made public annually. But bitter wrangling between the Trump administration and Congress kept the 2020 report locked away, making Tuesday’s release among the first public glimpses into the intelligence community’s assessment of the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also offers grim warnings about Russian and Chinese covert influence operations, and an early insight into Iran’s nuclear ambitions since President Joe Biden took office as he attempts to renegotiate an updated version of the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump exited in 2018.
The picture is not pretty. Officials warn that in addition to the obvious humanitarian concerns associated with the pandemic — like food shortages and uneven access to therapeutics — the virus is also reshaping the security calculus of nations like Russia and China, who are jockeying to exploit the crisis to increase their geopolitical influence. Both seek to gain an advantage through vaccine diplomacy. Beijing is also using its global health assistance efforts to export its surveillance tools and technologies, the report says.
The report also cautions that the world cannot yet breathe a sigh of relief despite rapid progress on vaccine development. The virus will remain a threat “to populations worldwide until vaccines and therapeutics are widely distributed,” the report warns. And a resurgence in infections early this year “may have an even greater economic impact as struggling businesses in hard-hit sectors such as tourism and restaurants fold and governments face increasing budget strains.”
The report states that the intelligence community believes Iran is not currently taking steps it believes are necessary to build a nuclear weapon but has resumed some activities that violate the terms of the 2015 agreement signed by both countries.
“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement in May 2018, Iranian officials have abandoned some of Iran’s commitments and resumed some nuclear activities that exceed the JCPOA limits,” the report says.
The intelligence community report also offered a clear warning to Biden as he faces pressure not to reduce sanctions on Iran in service of a broader deal: “Regime leaders probably will be reluctant to engage diplomatically in talks with the United States in the near term without sanctions or humanitarian relief or the United States rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”
“Iran remains committed to countering US pressure, although Tehran is also wary of becoming involved in a full-blown conflict,” the report adds.
In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, unleashing waves of crippling sanctions on Iran. A year later, Tehran began to gradually withdraw from its commitments to the nuclear deal, resuming parts of its uranium enrichment program.
But Biden has vowed to return to the JCPOA. For months, Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads about who should return to the landmark deal first — Iran says it won’t curb enrichment before the US lifts all sanctions, and the US has accused Iran of intransigence.
This story is breaking and will be updated