Amid the launch of mass COVID-19 vaccination drives in the West, there’s growing concern among Iranians that they could be left behind.
They fear U.S. sanctions and what some regard as the Iranian clerical establishment’s failure to prioritize the well-being of its citizens.
Iranians, including health workers, have taken to social media to call on their leaders to purchase vaccines against the coronavirus amid allegations by Iranian officials that U.S. sanctions are impeding their ability to procure them through COVAX, a global payment facility aimed at ensuring vaccine distribution around the world.
The concern over Iranians’ access to vaccines was also highlighted in a December 22 statement by more than two dozen rights groups and humanitarian organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), who called on "all stakeholders to ensure that Iranians have swift, unencumbered, and equitable access to safe, effective, and affordable COVID-19 vaccines."
Without inoculations, many more Iranians are likely to die from the Middle East’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, which has already infected more than 1.1 million Iranians and claimed the lives of nearly 54,000, according to officials figures. Health officials have suggested that the country’s real coronavirus death toll could be twice that number.
Earlier this month, Iranian Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati said in a social-media post that "inhumane sanctions by the U.S. government" were preventing the country from making any payment for vaccine doses via "the official channel of the World Health Organization (WHO)."
Republican U.S. President Donald Trump reimposed stifling sanctions on Iran in 2018 after withdrawing the United States from a multilateral 2015 nuclear deal that exchanged sanctions relief for curbs on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has said the United States will rejoin the accord if Tehran returns to strict compliance, although there is at least one effort afoot among Republicans in the U.S. Senate to prevent that.
A COVAX spokesperson was quoted as saying that Iran has received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to procure vaccines and that Tehran does not face any "legal barrier."
Humanitarian goods, including medicine and food, are supposed to be exempt from U.S. sanctions. But HRW has documented that U.S. sanctions have constrained Iran’s ability to finance vital medicines.
Esfandiyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Bourse And Bazaar, an opinion website focused on Iran’s economy that promotes business diplomacy between European countries and Iran, told RFE/RL that he thought Iran was seeking to use foreign-exchange reserves held in South Korea to make payments through the COVAX facility.
“U.S. sanctions exemptions and licenses technically permit these payments to be made for a humanitarian good such as vaccines. But there are only two banks that have engaged in Iran-related transactions since the tightening of oil-related sanctions in 2010: Woori Bank and Industrial Bank of Korea. And both banks have in the last decade come under significant pressure from U.S. authorities over their Iran business,” Batmanghelidj said.
"It is possible that the Trump administration has explicitly told these banks not to process these payments, but even without such a directive, bank executives will be strongly inclined to wait until the Biden administration is in office before proceeding,” he added.
HRW Iran researcher Tara Sepehrifar argued that the United States and Iran must work together to provide Iranians access to vaccines quickly, adding that humanitarian exemptions have been insufficient to ensure Iran’s access to medicine in a timely manner.
“The U.S. Treasury should actively work with banks and financial mechanisms to ensure Iran’s money in the form of foreign currency can be used for purchasing vaccines," Sepehrifar told RFE/RL.
"Iranian authorities should prioritize Iranians' right to health and do everything in their power to ensure Iranians access to safe and effective vaccines as soon as possible,” she added.
Iranians Blaming Their Leaders
Speaking on December 22, government spokesman Ali Rabiei suggested that part of Iran's problem was self-inflicted.
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He pointed to a failure to comply with rules of the global anti-money-laundering- and anti-terrorism-funding task force -- known as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) -- that are opposed by the country’s hard-liners.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recently ordered a review of legislation that would bring the country into FATF compliance.
“Based on sanction laws and FATF principles, several possibilities for transferring money encountered problems," Rabiei said, adding that the FATF blacklisting of Iran is affecting the country’s financial dealings.
Many Iranians have tweeted about the need to access vaccines quickly using the Farsi hashtag #Buy_vaccines. Some blamed their own leaders for any potential delay and accused them of prioritizing their own ambitions over the health of citizens.
Among them was prominent former political prisoner Zia Nabavi, who said "[Iranian authorities] consider nuclear energy, but not the right to life, an inalienable right."
“When I see my parents who, in their 70s, have become so frustrated at not seeing their children and grandchildren for a long time, I can no longer remain silent and control myself," economist Siamak Ghassemi wrote on social media.
“We know you well. Stop this self-sufficiency show and don’t [sacrifice] our lives for your own adventurism,” he added in an apparent reference to announcements by officials about working on Iranian vaccines and Tehrani officials' long-running efforts to ensure stability despite Western isolation.
A doctor in Tehran who did not want to be named said clinical trials for the Iranian vaccines have not started and added that the effort, even if successful, could take many more months.
“For now, we have to rely on foreign vaccines,” he said.
Speaking on December 23, President Hassan Rohani attempted to ease Iranians' concerns.
“We don’t have any worries for the future, even regarding the production of vaccines or the purchase of vaccines,” he said.
Rohani added that the Central Bank and the Health Ministry were doing all they could to provide Iranians with vaccines.
Mostafa Ghanei, the head of the scientific committee at Iran’s National Headquarters for Combating the Coronavirus, told the official news agency IRNA earlier this month that Iran was unlikely to purchase the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine due to its price tag and a local lack of infrastructure.
But, without being specific, he suggested that the country has several other options.