Iranian state media recently published remarks from Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s Covid-19 response committee, which confirmed details of the regime’s failed response to the crisis. Zali acknowledged that the regime’s authorities had declined to purchase doses of proven vaccines simply because they were averse to the idea of taking on the relevant costs. At the same time, the regime had little concern for the costs involved in its support of regional militant groups or its efforts to build up naval forces and intimidate commercial shipping in Middle Eastern waters.
Tehran is willing to allow people to suffer terribly if the only alternative is to abandon its pet projects and potentially halt the force-projection that masks the regime’s vulnerability.
The regime’s unwillingness to pay full price for Covid-19 vaccines is part of a larger pattern of decision-making that has prevented the country from locking down properly or undertaking other serious mitigation efforts. This week, regime authorities finally announced that they would be initiating a new lockdown, but they also specified that it would last only six days – not even long enough for new infections to finish incubating before their hosts resume interacting with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei personally controls hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, many of which are held in so-called religious foundations.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls similar amounts via a series of front companies and private sector affiliates. The IRGC controls the majority of Iran’s gross domestic product and directs it toward foreign proxies, missile development, and other projects that serve to preserve the regime.
Further underscoring the callousness of this arrangement, the IRGC has even sought to profit off of the pandemic by advocating for its own companies to be put in charge of vaccine acquisition and distribution. Khamenei promptly embraced that idea and took the relevant tasks out of the hands of the Health Ministry, whose officials remained dutifully silent over Tehran’s interference until very recently.
The privatization of vaccine distribution contributed to the cutting of corners. It motivated IRGC-linked entities to either avoid purchasing doses that would do the best or re-sell them at extortionate prices. Khamenei actively contributed to those trends by banning the import of vaccines that had been designed and manufactured in the United States or Britain. This made Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines inaccessible to ordinary Iranians. However, they could still be obtained by the wealthy and well-connected via the black market, which itself is controlled by the IRGC and has been found selling individual vaccine doses for up to 1,350 dollars.
The consequences of this situation are apparent and are growing worse by the day. While the regime’s elites are steadily moving beyond the crisis, the ordinary population is in the midst of a “fifth wave” of infections that has not seen its peak yet. The regime’s engineered numbers are continually breaking records for new Covid-19 infections and deaths, with more than 650 fatalities being recorded on Monday alone and pushing the official total very close to 100,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.
But according to the Iranian opposition, the death toll is above 368,400 as of Tuesday.
The Covid-19 crisis in Iran is devastating – far more so than could possibly be alleviated by a six-day lockdown and an anemic vaccine distribution scheme that has so far reached less than four percent of the population. Reports from various Iranian hospitals indicate that intensive care units are well over capacity and that doctors have resorted to treating new patients on the floors of hallways. Meanwhile, cemeteries struggle to bury the dead fast enough, and taxi drivers are being tasked with transporting dead bodies in regions that have simply run out of hearses.
As more and more of this information leaks out to the Iranian people and the international community, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Iranian regime is unwilling to take action that will mitigate the crisis or bring it to an end via vaccination. Authorities remain much more fixated on retaining their hold on power and extending it beyond their borders. The consequences of these misplaced priorities will continue as long as the regime stays in power.