Women wearing protective masks walk along a street in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP

Iran is witnessing Covid-19 infection rates of 50 new cases per hour, while deaths are occurring every 10 minutes, a spokesman for the country’s health ministry announced in a tweet on Thursday.

“According to the latest data, 50 people in Iran are infected with Covid-19 almost every hour, and every 10 minutes, one person loses his life as a result of corona,” said Kianush Jahanpur, the head of the ministry’s public relations and information center.

In response to the growing pandemic, four Gulf Arab states have moved to send aid to Tehran, even as its regional rival Saudi Arabia and its vassal state of Bahrain have notably refrained.

Kuwait, which is separated from Iran by only the Iraqi port of Basra, on Tuesday pledged US$10 million in humanitarian aid to help in Iran’s fight against the novel coronavirus.

In a call with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Kuwait’s top diplomat Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah pledged “solidarity” with the Iranian government and people, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

The United Arab Emirates, located just across the Persian Gulf, this week sent two planes loaded with 32 metric tons of medical supplies to Iran. It was the second such humanitarian delivery this month, the first in coordination with the World Health Organization.

“Coronavirus respects no geographic, religious, or political boundaries – all nations must come together in a time of global crisis,” tweeted Hend al-Otaiba, a top spokesperson at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Qatar and Oman, which have bucked previous efforts by Saudi Arabia to unify the Arab Gulf nations against Iran, have also sent humanitarian aid to Tehran.

While such moves are expected from Muscat, which adheres to a strict policy of neutrality, and Doha, which was able to count on Iran throughout a Saudi-led blockade, the mobilization by Abu Dhabi is significant – and could lead to diplomatic developments to come.

UAE hedges bets

Iran now has the second-largest infection rate in the world outside China and after Italy, with 17,361 cases and counting, according to the World Health Organization.

“When the Iranians first appealed for help, no one but Chinese responded, and then the WHO stepped in, and UAE facilitated the flight carrying the aid,” said James M Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Center.

“The UAE wants to be on good side of the Iranians. It’s humanitarian by definition, but it is certainly not altruistic,” he told Asia Times.

That calculation is linked to persistent confrontations between Iran and the US, including an ongoing tit-for-tat between American forces and pro-Iran militias in Iraq, which failed to cease after the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in early January.

Various statements of goodwill by Emirati officials have echoed the rhetoric of Iran’s Javad Zarif, who has consistently called for Gulf cooperation, seeking to capitalize on the often haphazard Middle East policy of the Trump administration.

The UAE outreach has been noticed, with regional observers flagging it as the potential start of further engagement.

“Such behaviors help create goodwill & more importantly reinforce perception this is one neighborhood that must be shared by all,” tweeted Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the DC-based Middle East Institute, which in 2019 listed the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates as its top contributor.

Saudi Arabia, the richest Gulf state, has not followed suit.

Saudis dig in

Saudi Arabia, while announcing earlier this month it would contribute $10 million to the WHO’s global Covid-19 appeal, has refrained from direct aid to its stricken neighbor.

Iran was the transit point for the earliest cases in the Gulf, including Saudi citizens having returned from religious pilgrimages with the virus via Bahrain.

Riyadh on March 8 sealed off the Shiite-majority eastern province of Qatif after 11 coronavirus cases were reported there.

Bahrain, a Shiite-majority archipelago ruled by a pro-Saudi Sunni monarchy, went so far as to accuse Iran of “biological aggression” in allowing the virus to spread beyond its borders.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who last year appeared to be edging toward detente with Iran, appears to have reverted to a hardline stance after his rival’s top general was eliminated, observes Dorsey.

“As with the US, you’re not seeing any degree of magnanimity to the Iranians,” Dorsey noted, adding: “Giving humanitarian aid to Iran in a crisis like this is no skin off their teeth. Not giving it is clearly a decision of not wanting to signal goodwill.”

The litmus test, Dorsey says, will be whether the US-dominated International Monetary Fund approves an Iranian request for a $5 billion emergency loan to fight the novel coronavirus.

America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced a new suite of sanctions against Iran, even as the US struggled to address its own Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 7,000 cases and counting.

“Our sanctions will deprive the regime of critical income from its petrochemical industry and further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation. The United States will continue to fully enforce our sanctions,” Pompeo emphasized.

Iranian authorities say humanitarian exceptions have not been enough to reassure international companies from dealing with them, as few are willing to risk losing access to the US market or the global SWIFT system over meager trade volumes with Iran.

Some US lawmakers, including Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, have called for an easing of sanctions on the Islamic Republic amid the pandemic.

The Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran as of Thursday continued to list scheduled departures to Istanbul, Dubai and Doha, which hosts the largest US military base in the region.

Read more: The UAE tangos with Tehran

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.