Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei banned Iran from importing any vaccine produced by the United States or the United Kingdom. The ban, announced in a Jan. 8 speech, has shed new light on the structure of the medical supplies market in Iran and special interest groups, which seem to gloss over that 56,000 Iranians have perished in the pandemic.
With a population close to 82 million, Iran has a massive demand for various pharmaceutical products and medical equipment. Iran's health care system includes both public and private medical centers. The Iranian government pays a massive amount in subsidies to reduce the cost of treatment and to keep prescription drug prices low. In 2018, it allocated $1.373 billion to importing medical supplies, out of which $1.1 billion was spent on drugs and pharmaceutical imports. The importers buy allocated hard currency for imports at a rate of 42,000 Iranian rials per US dollar, which is one-sixth of the market rate. The perks are significant for importers, black market operators and smugglers. Smuggling drugs from Iran to its neighboring countries is a lucrative business. Last October, Iraqi intelligence forces captured 19 trucks full of smuggled pharmaceuticals valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars in Diyala province. The smuggling has continued despite the sanctions and shortages in Iran's domestic market. As the pandemic drags on, Iranians' access to medicine is distorted by criminal activities and the government's lack of response.