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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected communities across the globe, revealing the shortcomings in their health care systems and inadequacies in their decision-making processes. It has affected Iran particularly lethally. With a total of 1.29 million cases, Iran has recorded 56,262 deaths as of Jan. 11. The COVID-19 mortality rate in Iran is estimated to be around 4.4%. In comparison, Turkey has recorded 2.34 million cases with only 22,981 fatalities, a mortality rate of less than 1%. Iranians are suffering and losing more loved ones to COVID-19 than their neighbors. Iranians need assistance to combat COVID-19, yet the country’s political establishment is wary of sharing credit with any outsider.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in Iran, authorities have been unreceptive to international organizations and Western governments’ assistance. Last March, the humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was shocked to learn an initial approval for its effort to manage COVID-19 cases in the central province of Isfahan had been revoked by Iranian health officials. A media campaign organized by hard-liners forced the Iranian Ministry of Health to withdraw its initial approval.
Vaccine acquisition follows a similar pattern. Iranian conservatives with an eye on upcoming presidential elections and with substantial interests in the pharmaceutical sector do not want to let President Hassan Rouhani’s administration score any points with the Iranian public. Despite the many criticisms of Rouhani’s response to COVID-19, it’s clear that he has prioritized obtaining a vaccine for Iranians. According to sources in Tehran, Rouhani had tasked Abdolnasser Hemmati, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, with finding the resources to pay for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Hemmati had been in negotiations with South Korea and Iraq to secure the funds from Iran’s frozen accounts in these countries. Conservative media outlets reported on his progress, questioning the vaccines’ effectiveness while advocating for importing vaccines from China or Russia. However, no one expected an outright ban on importing vaccines from the United States and United Kingdom by the highest authority in the land.