Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world is facing its gravest challenge in decades, but President Trump issued a reminder today that geopolitical tensions won’t wait until it’s over.

The big picture: Trump’s threat to “destroy” Iranian boats that harass U.S. ships comes amid rumors about Kim Jong-un's health, arrests in Hong Kong of leading pro-democracy activists, and clashes in Afghanistan that could further undermine the peace process there. 

What to watch: Many crises that pre-date the pandemic rumble on, while new ones could emerge while the world’s attention is elsewhere. Rob Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group, tells Axios he has two main concerns:

  1. "Countries could decide that now is a good time to act precisely because the world is distracted, and they think they can get away with it” with limited international pushback.
  2. Leaders who are under pressure over their handling of the coronavirus and its economic ramifications might try to create a “diversion” in hopes the country will “rally around the flag.”

Between the lines: Malley notes that both Trump and Iran's leaders have been under intense scrutiny during the pandemic.

  • “It's worth pondering whether in this case or in others we're going to see leaders trying to change the subject,” he says.
  • Trump’s threat came after Iran announced its first military satellite launch and the Pentagon accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of “dangerous” maneuvers near U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Where things stand: U.S.-Iran tensions aren't the only holdover from the pre-COVID world.

  • Libya’s civil war continues and attacks from jihadist groups including Boko Haram have intensified in Africa’s Sahel region.
  • Countries like Venezuela that were already contending with political and economic crises now face a pandemic.
  • Earth Day comes with emissions falling as the world locks down, but international efforts to fight climate change on the back burner. 

The flipside: The pandemic also presents opportunities to reduce tensions or end conflicts, as is being attempted in Yemen (with inconclusive results so far) and through the UN’s call for a global ceasefire.

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