Countries across the globe, among them Iran’s neighbors, have rushed to embark on nationwide vaccination campaigns in hopes of ending the coronavirus pandemic that has been disrupting every aspect of life since it first emerged in late 2019 in China. By authorizing Covid vaccine shots under emergency conditions, these countries have virtually ignored conventional scientific prudence in the development and use of vaccines.
Nonetheless, anti-vaxxers in numerous nations refuse to be vaccinated either on superstitious grounds or illusions born out of pseudoscientific conspiracy. Thus, to mitigate vaccine hesitancy, numerous politicians have volunteered to lift their sleeves to receive the Covid jab on camera, to encourage citizens to get vaccinated.
But the story is different in Iran, one of the worst-hit by SARS-CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Iran is perhaps among the few states in the world to have politicized the issue of the Covid vaccine rollout, providing a new battleground for factional dispute as well as political and security debates. These discussions are in part linked with scientific-based concerns and also tied to more than four decades of hostility between Tehran and Washington, which is making it difficult for Iranians to get access to vaccines any time soon.
Conflicting remarks by Iranian officials over the past two months about the planned purchase of foreign-made vaccines and the promise of domestic vaccines have elicited mixed reactions across the country. In light of this confusion, Iranians took to social media to sound off over the government’s hesitation to supply Western vaccines.
Iranians took to social media to sound off over the government’s hesitation to supply Western vaccines.
In late December, the #واکسن_بخرید hashtag (#buy a vaccine) trended on Twitter by Iranians frustrated with the government’s disorganized handling of the Covid vaccine issue.
This campaign was dismissed by right-wing factions and state-run media as a “deviational move” playing well into Western governments’ hands and in response, state-owned media and pro-government social media activists promoted the #واکسن_میسازیم hashtag (#we will develop a vaccine).
Ayatollah Khamenei’s Surprise Announcement
On December 29, Iranian health officials appeared before cameras to claim they have begun Phase 1 of human trials for a homegrown vaccine. The ceremony was ensued by days of heated debate about the effectiveness of Iranian-made vaccines and doubts about foreign vaccines. It should be noted that almost no other country had made such propaganda around Phase 1 of clinical trials.
Days later, on January 8, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who has the final say on all state matters – made a surprise announcement. In a televised speech, he imposed a ban on “American and British” Covid vaccines. He specifically named leading vaccine manufacturer Pfizer, highlighting the 4,000 deaths in 24 hours in the United States, saying: “If they know how to produce a vaccine and if their Pfizer company can produce a vaccine, why would they give it to us? Well, they can use it for themselves….” Khamenei also claimed that foreign vaccine manufacturers may want to “test their vaccines on other nations.” Twitter later hid Ayatollah’s office’s tweet about this claim, as it was suspected of being “misleading.”
Following the supreme leader’s ban on Western-made vaccines, Iran’s Red Crescent announced the order placed for the purchase of 150,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines would be canceled.
Following the supreme leader’s ban on Western-made vaccines, Iran’s Red Crescent immediately announced the order placed for the purchase of 150,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines would be canceled. Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki also backed Khamenei’s decision, but reactions across society and on social media were divided.
While regime supporters heaped praise on Ayatollah Khamenei’s mandate, many others asked on social media how Iran could still buy several other US-made drugs yet be opposed to Western-made Covid vaccines? This question was posed to Iran’s senior clergy in particular, as they often seek medical treatment in Europe.
Despite the public discord, the Iranian government canceled its plans for purchasing Moderna or Astra-Zeneca vaccines as well but said it had already allocated 200 million euros to purchase 16.8 million doses of the vaccine from the World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVAX alliance. Iran is reportedly in talks with China’s Sinovac to buy vaccines. There has also been media speculation about the purchase of the Russian vaccine Sputnik.
Additionally, Cuba’s state-run Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV) announced it had struck a deal with the Pasteur Institute of Iran which will oversee a Phase 3 clinical trial in Iran, to “move forward” faster in immunization against Covid-19 in both countries.
This announcement drew an angry reaction from citizens as it contradicted Iranian head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raeisi’s remarks that “Iran would be no lab for American and British vaccines.” Social media users wondered why Iranians would then become Guinea pigs for Communist Cuba’s vaccine.
What’s Really Behind the US-UK Vaccine Ban?
Amid widespread rumors and conflicting news about an Iranian-made vaccine and public mistrust of officials, coupled with the medical community’s call for the urgent supply of Covid-19 vaccines for high-risk groups, it seems that Iran’s ban on foreign vaccine imports went beyond scientific reasons and was to some extent a product of political considerations.
On the one hand, the decision to ban the American vaccine may be seen as the continuation of Iran’s “Pivot to the East” strategy, i.e. cooperating with Russia, China, and Cuba, and permanent resentment of the Occident. As part of that policy and in response to the US’ “maximum pressure” campaign and crippling sanctions targeting its main source of revenue, Iran is eying a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with China.
Iranian officials have in recent weeks claimed US sanctions have barred or made it very difficult for any vaccine to be supplied to Iran. The refusal of foreign banks to process Iran’s payment for Covid vaccines raised speculation about the fall-out of Iran remaining on the global financial blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Indeed, Iran had refused to adopt laws toward improving its controls on money laundering and terrorist financing. Moderate and hardline factions in Iran have been in disagreement about Iran joining the FATF.
Attributing the FATF blacklist to public health issues could turn into a lever of pressure on ruling hardliners to relent and give their nod. The thorny issue of FATF remains in the hands of Iran’s top arbitration body, the Expediency Council, and hardliners are unlikely to be willing to agree with Iran joining the FATF in the final months of President Hassan Rouhani’s term in office.
On the other hand, any development of a vaccine in Iran would be a boon for pharmaceutical companies in the country and save Iran big money. It would also resolve the problem of nearly-impossible money transfers to foreign banks, caused by US banking sanctions. Moreover, buying foreign vaccines to inoculate a country of over 80 million would require billions of dollars, which Iran is unlikely to afford due to the deterioration of the Iranian economy.
By promoting domestic vaccine development, the Iranian establishment can stimulate “national pride” for political gains.
Meanwhile, by promoting domestic vaccine development, the Iranian establishment can stimulate “national pride” for political gains, as this has already happened. No sooner had Ayatollah Khamenei opposed foreign vaccine imports than Conservative media ran opinion polls, claiming that respondents favored domestic vaccine production and mistrusted foreign vaccines. The accuracy of these polls, however, was in doubt as they had been conducted within days of Khamenei’s vaccine ban announcement. Some unsubstantiated reports also appeared in state media, claiming that “thousands of health professionals” had warned President Rouhani about the harmful consequences of any purchase of US-made vaccines.
Against the backdrop of the transition of power in the US – as Democrat Joe Biden recently took over from Trump, Iranian reformists and moderates expressed optimism about the possibility of sanctions’ removal and improvement of economic conditions. Nonetheless, hardline anti-Western factions did not hesitate to speculate that moderates were seeking to change the public impression of the US for political gains to provide a pretext to sit at the negotiating table with Washington.
They are seriously concerned that should US-Iran talks come about, the Biden administration would facilitate vaccine supply to Iran, automatically giving moderates in Iran a winning card in the run-up to the June presidential election. Hardliners are mobilizing all their forces to win and tighten their grip on the last remaining branch of government, with the other two – judiciary and legislature – already in their hands.
There are concerns that the new US administration might use the issue of the Covid vaccine as a pretext to cause social unrest in Iran or win concessions in possible future talks.
Given the decades-long hostility between Iran and the US, and Washington’s sanctions on Tehran, there are concerns that the new US administration might use the issue of the Covid vaccine as a pretext to cause social unrest in Iran or win concessions in possible future talks on Iran’s nuclear program, reducing Tehran’s bargaining power. If so, Iran would have to decrease its demands regarding the US’ return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal, and the removal of US sanctions “with no preconditions” to instead accept for example the unfreezing of its assets blocked in South Korea, or the granting of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for health purposes.
Indeed, Iranians like everyone else in the world would like to be inoculated from Covid-19 as soon as possible to return to normal life and resume business. But citizens currently have no other option except waiting, as Iranian health officials have promised to roll out domestic vaccines no sooner than the end of next spring, hoping that the virus would not mutate to become more virulent before then.