The Islamic Republic’s clampdown on freedoms in an increasingly stifling environment has in recent years confined Iranians to campaigns on social media as their last resort to speak out with a minimal risk of prosecution. And the expression of anger against the coronavirus pandemic policies has been no exception.
“Just import the vaccine,” is what furious Iranians post across social media platforms, accusing their government of dragging its feet on purchasing the internationally approved coronavirus vaccines. The campaigns were launched after Iranian officials demonstrated reluctance with confusing and often contradictory excuses, even as the country’s mortality rate is inching closer to the 55,000 mark.
Launched Dec. 20, the Twitter storm coincided with Shabe Yalda (Yalda Night), a millennia-old Iranian festival on the longest night of the year before winter ushers in, marked especially by family gatherings and poetry readings. Yet with the deadly pandemic casting a shadow in the background, little was left for many Iranians to celebrate. Loved ones, and particularly grandparents, who once recited classical, inspiring poems for the greater family, were but empty seats, leaving behind a grim picture of just how the virus has robbed Iranians of the emotional bonds that have historically defined their very cultural identity.
“For the elderly who face imminent death,” “for the sake of the fatigued medical staff” and “for the schoolchildren who are grappling with depression,” social media users urged the government to import vaccines. The top trending Persian hashtag that translates into “buy the vaccine” did not just carry a tone of frustration and helplessness. Many of those messages were replete with scathing criticism rooted in accumulated discontent with a wide range of issues, from the government’s corruption and money laundering to its regional activities and a perceived politicized approach toward the pandemic.
Officials in President Hassan Rouhani’s administration have in recent weeks been scrambling to offer explanations on the delay in vaccine purchases. A lack of freezing technology to preserve the doses as well as international sanctions and US-imposed banking restrictions remain the major justifications that have, nonetheless, failed to convince the public. How is it possible, many asked, that the government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are capable of funneling money to a widespread network of armed proxy forces across the Middle East but they disregard a public emergency as serious as the coronavirus pandemic?
International sanctions have hit Iran hard in the past three years in particular. Yet Tehran has managed one way or another to pay for and import medicines almost on a daily basis. Nasser Riahi, head of the Iranian Pharmaceuticals Importers Union, rejected the banking restriction claims, saying a monthly amount of 100 million euros ($122 million) is regularly transferred for such purchases. Elsewhere, responding to queries from some Iranian journalists, the World Health Organization’s COVAX international initiative for the COVID-19 vaccine delivery made it clear that the Islamic Republic is facing no hurdles on its way to order vaccines.
“You have certainly bought the vaccine for yourselves, haven’t you? Then buy it for us through the same channel,” documentary filmmaker Hossein Dehbashi told Iranian officials. The message appeared as an allusion to reports earlier in September about members of the Iranian parliament being prioritized for doses of influenza vaccines, which despite boastful government plans have yet to reach the general public. Those developments have raised questions about a fair distribution even if the government ends up importing COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s our absolute right, like the nuclear energy,” others wrote sarcastically with a reference to Iran’s costly nuclear program, which the government has long promoted as the nation’s “inalienable right.”
Iran’s Health Ministry says clinical trials have already begun for indigenous vaccines developed by three Iranian companies, with the distribution process planned for some time in June. But such statements have also renewed a debate on validity. Back in April, the IRGC drew public anger and contempt after unveiling what it claimed to be a virus detecting device, which was never followed up and remains unexplained to Iranians.
The three companies working on the vaccines are under the auspices of the Headquarters of Imam's Directive, a powerful network of often unaudited business enterprises affiliated with the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Iran has declared that its own vaccine will not be free, suspicions have grown that the entity is attempting to block vaccine imports to secure its monopoly and the expected turnover from the sale of millions of doses at home.
The government’s seesawing plans have also been coupled with partisanship, only adding to the existing public worries. The two competing political factions are exchanging diatribes, with moderates arguing that hard-liners are the ones who triggered the banking restrictions. The latter obstructed earlier this year a Rouhani government bill that could have taken Iran off a blacklist by the Financial Action Task Force. The Expediency Council, responsible for that roadblock, has now decided to review the decision. Yet its chairman announced that the reconsideration is a directive from the supreme leader and has nothing to do with the vaccine controversy.
The president of the Iranian Medical Council, Abbas Aghazadeh, advised the Rouhani administration to put aside political considerations and focus instead on vaccine purchases. “Millions of lives cannot be compromised for the sake of … ideological rivalries,” he said. But remarks by the Iranian president last week added confusion to the already complicated case; in an indirect reference to Western vaccines, Rouhani said his government cannot afford to allow “unreliable” products to be tested on Iranians.
Still, under the mounting public pressure, Iran's Central Bank Gov. Abdolnaser Hemmati spoke of an amount of 200 million euros ($245 million) being allocated to vaccine purchases via the COVAX initiative. If successfully transferred, the fund is expected to cover 16 million doses for 8 million individuals, less than 10% of Iran’s population. However, Iranian medical experts argue that for an effective curb of the pandemic, some two-thirds of the population must be vaccinated within a short-term period.
In the Middle East’s worst-hit country, those contrasting figures have left ordinary people wondering with frustration and despair whether the vaccine will ultimately reach them at a time when “even Venezuela” and neighboring Iraq have already imported their doses to make it to the other side of the bridge.