The US warned Iran that any attacks on its positions in Iraq would get a robust, if proportional, response. After Iranian-backed Shi’a militias marked the late Qassem Soleimani’s birthday by lobbing thirty-plus missiles at the Taji air base and killed two US and one British soldiers, the US launched air attacks on multiple locations in retaliation. The attacks took aim at weapons caches as well as militia strongholds, although no assessment of damage has been made public yet:

The Pentagon said in a statement that U.S. forces hit facilities “across Iraq” linked to Kataib Hezbollah, including storage facilities that housed weapons used in attacks on American and coalition troops.

“The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in the statement. “As we have demonstrated in recent months, we will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region.”

The aerial bombardment took place around 1:30 a.m., according to the Iraqi military. It was unclear whether any militia members were killed.

In response to a request for a White House statement, a senior administration official said that President Trump had directed U.S. forces to conduct strikes on five Kataib Hezbollah weapons storage facilities “to significantly degrade the group’s ability to carry out future attacks.”

“The President has been clear that we will not stand for the Iranian regime attacking Americans in Iraq or elsewhere, whether directly or through proxies,” the official said in an email.

The timing of the strike on Taji is interesting not just for its tie to Soleimani, who himself was targeted in retaliation for many years of attacks on Americans and others. The Iranians are deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caught fire in Iran and has only gotten worse. This morning, Iran reported 85 new coronavirus deaths in the previous 24 hours, the worst one-day total outside of China so far. Yesterday, Iran asked the IMF for billions in low-cost loans to deal with the crisis, which they officially acknowledge now involves 10,000 infections — and is probably much worse.

Iran now demands that the US lift sanctions in light of the pandemic, so that Tehran can sell oil to pay for badly needed medical supplies and equipment. Javad Zarif accused the Trump administration of “economic terrorism” in his address today:

Iran’s foreign minister demanded Thursday that the United States immediately halt what he called a “campaign of economic terrorism” and lift sanctions, saying they have made it increasingly difficult for the country to export oil and virtually impossible to import medicine and medical equipment, including to identify and treat coronavirus patients.

Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that U.S. sanctions have also left thousands of Iranians stranded abroad and severely disrupted air links with Europe. And he said they have led to what he called “Google’s immoral censoring” of a new government app designed to help Iranians identify potential symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. …

“To this end,” Zarif said, “It is imperative that the United Nations and its member states join the Iranian people in demanding that the government of the United States abandon its malign and fruitless approach against Iran.”

If the Iranians want help, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this week, they should start by releasing all foreign hostages first:

The United States calls on the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release on humanitarian grounds all wrongfully detained Americans being held in Iran. The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive.

Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens. Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency.

The Iranian regime recently released 70,000 prisoners due to the outbreak of COVID-19, demonstrating its ability to grant clemency and show mercy. Yet it continues to unjustly detain several American citizens, without cause or justification.

Any nation considering whether to provide Iran with humanitarian assistance because of COVID-19 should seek a reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the regime: release all wrongly detained dual and foreign national citizens. This request is well within the regime’s power to grant.

The United States will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained abroad are returned home.

This is the context that surrounded the attack on Taji earlier this week. The regime is in deep trouble with their ineffective response to COVID-19 and desperately needs a distraction. They also likely suspected that Donald Trump has been weakened as well in the US with the coronavirus concerns here and the heavy criticism of the administration’s handling of the crisis. The attacks in Iraq serve as both a distraction at home and a test of US resolve.

Tehran got an answer to both. The US isn’t incapable of handling two crises at a time, and we have a lot more flexibility on resources than Iran does at the moment. With Iran digging mass graves at Qom in response to the outbreak, the mullahs’ position is becoming a lot more untenable than Trump’s. They don’t have ten months to wait for a new president to cut a deal to save their own skins. They might not have three months if the IRGC starts to fill those mass graves. At some point, they have to decide whether they want to briefly hold a land bridge to the Mediterranean or to hold onto power at home.