Iran's Bewildering Own Goal on Vaccine Procurement | Opinion

"We are neither your emulators nor your subjects," Iranian journalist and former political prisoner Zia Nabavi recently proclaimed, addressing Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "whatever vaccines you don't trust in, you shouldn't use them yourself!" Nabavi's daring rebuke of the most powerful figure in Iran came after Khamenei bizarrely banned "English and American" vaccines in a televised speech last week. In a country reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the backlash has been fierce.

Over 50,000 Iranians have died from the coronavirus according to the official count. The real number could be double or triple this figure, according to a senior Health Ministry official and investigations carried out by BBC Persian. Iran's frontline healthcare workers have been devastated, many of its hospitals are overflowing, and its economy, already squeezed by U.S. sanctions, has been under unprecedented strain. It is no surprise, then, that many Iranians, desperate for better days on the horizon, are beyond outraged that their own government would obstruct the procurement of sorely needed vaccines.

The Backlash Inside Iran

Khamenei's reckless announcement is almost certain to lead to more innocent deaths. Already, the edict has led to the cancellation of 150,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shots procured by U.S. philanthropists for Iran. Had such innoculations been allowed to go forward, Iran would have had a jumpstart in being able to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers and other high-risk citizens, helping to save lives and prevent the virus' spread. Khamenei's position has been viewed as indefensible by many within Iran and based on politics and ideology rather than science.

Reformist dissident and former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh pointedly opined about Khamenei's speech: "Preserving the health of citizens is the duty of every government. No officials, not even the Leader, has the right to give opinions on how to confront corona without the necessary specialized expertise or to make decisions against the will of specialists and the relevant institutions [in this area]." Tajzadeh asked Khamenei to say his remarks were only "guidance" and that Iran's "Headquarters to Confront Corona," an institution created in the wake of the outbreak, is the main decision maker on this issue.

Notably, the hashtag "buy vaccines" recently trended on Persian-language Twitter. Many Iranians used it to call on their country's officials to not politicize procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and to prioritize the wellbeing of citizens above all. Many also highlighted the role of U.S. sanctions in making it more difficult for Iran to import vaccines. Khamenei not only neglected this outpouring of public sentiment but now is a chief impediment to Iran getting the number of vaccines it needs for its over 80 million citizens.

The criticisms of Khamenei have come from many quarters. Iran's "Medical Council," an official body composed of leading healthcare professionals, sent a letter to President Hassan Rouhani in the wake of Khamenei's remarks. The letter did not address Khamenei directly, but it minced no words on what Iran needs right now: "As representatives of the medical community in Iran," the letter's signatories urged Rouhani to "stay away from political issues" and "meet the obvious rights of the people and the expectations of medical workers" by making "every effort to procure a safe vaccine approved by the scientific community."

Khamenei's edict in fact runs against the statements of Iran's Health Ministry. The ministry's only criteria for importing vaccines was that they be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and be in use in the country that is producing them. Iran is currently producing its own indigenous COVID-19 vaccine and is cooperating with Cuba on another. Both efforts recently began human trials. Officials have also been pursuing channels to import vaccines from abroad, including the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines, until Khamenei's speech.

While Khamenei's speech praised efforts to produce a native vaccine in Iran, he said Western countries like the U.S., the UK, and France cannot be trusted. He accused them of seeking to "test" their vaccines on other populations, despite the fact the millions have already been vaccinated in these countries. He also cited the unfortunate real history of France sending HIV-tainted blood supplies to Iran.

However, many inside Iran have pointed out the hypocrisy of Khamenei's position. This has even come from segments of the population that long formed the Islamic Republic's base of support such as Rahim Ghomeishi, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who was held captive in Iraq for years. Ghomeishi said in response to Khamenei with an air of sarcasm: "Sure, these English and American vaccines are not trustworthy. But what about other cancer and specialized medicines? They are trustworthy and this one isn't? Why is it allowed that some senior clerics and officials go to Europe for medical treatment? Please give us a report on this so we know the depth of the catastrophe."

Many Iranians on social media also drew on comments that Khamenei said in 2019 after a gas-price hike led to widespread protests and a brutal government crackdown. At the time, Khamenei deflected responsibility for the gas price hike by saying he was "not an expert" on the matter and that a high-level economic council was responsible for the decision. Fast forward to today and Khamenei is allowing himself to enter a scientific debate and override the preferences of Iran's leading medical experts.

Interestingly, Khamenei's remarks also led many Iranians to cast a spotlight on Uğur Şahin, a German doctor of Turkish descent. Şahin played a major role in the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which Khamenei has now banned. Ironically, just last year, Şahin was the recipient of the Mustafa prize in Iran, a "biennial Iranian prize for Muslims in science and technology." Khamenei has in effect banned a vaccine for allegedly being untrustworthy that was developed by a Muslim scientist who the Iranian government itself awarded.

Politics Over Science

Khamenei's ban of Western COVID-19 vaccines is devoid of any scientific justification. It is seemingly an effort to further fuel the flames of anti-Americanism in Iran and placate hardline factions opposed to improving Iran's relations with the West. For weeks now, fundamentalist figures like the former head of the Basij paramilitary force have warned against using Western vaccines in Iran. Notably, Khamenei's speech banning American vaccines was the same speech declaring his support for returning to the "negotiating table" with the United States, suggesting perhaps the vaccine ban is an attempt to provide cover from hardliners for a separate position that bolsters the position of moderate President Hassan Rouhani as he seeks to revive the nuclear accord in his last few months in office.

However, whether politicking aimed at balancing domestic forces informed Khamenei's decision to ban Western vaccines or not, the end result is clear: the health and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians comes in second place to politics and ideology in Iran.

Sina Toossi is a Senior Research Analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.