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Greed and Fear of Unrest Mean Iran’s Regime Can’t Be Trusted With Vaccines

If vaccine distribution in Iran is to have any hope of being conducted in a way that is efficient, equitable, and effective, it will need to be placed in the hands of international experts. The Iranian regime is inherently self-serving and bears most of the responsibility for the severity of the country’s coronavirus outbreaks. It strains credulity to imagine government authorities suddenly helping to solve the crisis they helped create now that vaccines are available.

The situation is made immeasurably worse by the fact that vaccine availability has deliberately been held down in Iran by edicts from the regimes’ Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. At the start of this year, he halted the planned distribution of 100,000 vaccines when he announced that doses manufactured in the United States or Europe would be barred from import.

The first goal will no doubt seem alien to those who expect national governments to take at least a passing interest in the lives of their people. Tehran’s policies and practices are motivated solely by the preservation of power for clerical authorities, and he has been uniquely apparent in the wake of multiple nationwide uprisings, two of which occurred only months before the onset of the global pandemic.

Khamenei once confessed that if forced to choose between maintaining the ruling system and safeguarding its theocratic principles, he would sooner violate Islam. This is to say, he and his fellow mullahs would sacrifice absolutely anything in defense of their own power. So it should not be difficult to imagine that they openly kill hundreds of Iranians as they did during the uprising of November 2019, or that they would allow the deaths of thousands amidst circumstances like the pandemic.

Khamenei bans import of Covid-19 vaccines

While the 2019 uprising was still ongoing, Amnesty International observed that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appeared to be “shooting to kill” in their clashes with protesters all across the country. The National Council of Resistance of Iran later reported that the death toll had risen to 1,500 in about a week’s time and that 12,000 Iranians had also been arrested and placed at risk of torture and lengthy prison terms or even execution. Amnesty detailed that torture in a report the following September.

By that time, the pandemic was in full swing and the NCRI had also helped to clarify the gap between Tehran’s estimate of the impact and that of independent sources who had collected hospital and morgue records as well as eyewitness statements. That gap has never meaningfully narrowed, and today the Iranian Health Ministry reports the death toll from Covid-19 at under 70,000, while the NCRI places the number at more than 260,000.

There is little question that the uprisings would have continued throughout 2020 and into 2021 if not for the coronavirus creating a different kind of fear about large public gatherings. Khamenei no doubt viewed this situation as a helpful supplement to the regime’s repression, and this helps to explain why he refused to make available any of the hundreds of billions of dollars in assets that he personally controls and could have utilized to alleviate widespread poverty and discourage people from going to work, or to finance the Health Ministry’s interventions and eventually its vaccine purchases.

Today, not only are hardline authorities like Khamenei playing no meaningful role in those purchases; the government has all but washed itself of the project altogether. Initially, Iran’s Health Ministry planned to leave acquisition in the hands of its Board of Trustees, but under pressure from elite private entities, it eventually permitted pharmaceutical companies and business leaders to do the purchasing on behalf of the Ministry. This in turn opened the door for the owners of those entities – often the Revolutionary Guards or any number of businesses with close ties to Khamenei – to profit off of resales.

Faced with criticism on this point, the Iranian regime tried at first to deny any corrupt intention and to insist that vaccines would still be free, as initially promised. But by this time, Tehran had already broken a number of promises related to the pandemic, including the promise that 2.8 million doses of vaccine would be available by the end of the Iranian calendar year in March. One million of these were supposed to come from Russia, where preliminary research indicated there was much less vaccine efficacy than in the banned import markets of America and Europe. Less than half of these reached Iran in time, and questions about their usage have proliferated ever since.

Amidst massive undersupply, reports began spreading through independent Iranian media of government officials and other well-connected persons buying early access to vaccines, either through the Health Ministry or directly through the private companies, affiliated to IRGC, tasked with acquiring them. This, too, the regime attempted to deny. The Health Ministry confirmed exactly what the reports indicated.

At the same time that their distributors were preoccupied with profits, the government had no interest in stepping in, since the inequitable distribution scheme would help to prolong domestic outbreaks of the disease while also protecting the authority figures and wealthy individuals who would otherwise be threatened by resurgent unrest.

Recent incidents such as nationwide demonstrations by Iranian pensioners and major clashes with the Revolutionary Guards in Sistan and Baluchistan give the impression that large-scale unrest is bubbling to the surface all the same. Under those circumstances, it is unthinkable that the theocratic dictatorship might change its public health policy or its pattern of repression and begin acting in the true interests of the Iranian people. As long as this remains the case, Covid-19 will remain out of control in Iran, and infections will continue to spread beyond its borders as well. With this in mind, the international community should push for Tehran to relinquish its authority over vaccine distribution and to let experts assess the real severity of the crisis, and determine how best to reverse it.