On January 2, Iranian Minister of Health Bahram Einollahi claimed that during the Rouhani administration, Covid-19 vaccines had been a political sticking-point. While just five million doses had been administered by the close of Hassan Rouhani’s tenure, he said, in the four months since Raisi took office, 180 million doses of vaccine had been acquired by Iran, and 115m doses administered.
"Unfortunately [under Rouhani],” Einollahi said, “vaccines were used as a political tool, so that people were pressured to accept some measures, such as the FATF [the global Financial Action Task Force] or the JCPOA, and the like. When we started the new government, we did not have any vaccines in the first week. You all know about it. But vaccines entered the country very quickly.”
The statement implied failings by the Rouhani administration, but it also indirectly refuted remarks made by senior officials during the Rouhani era. Two years ago, after the official acknowledgement that Covid-19 had come to Iran, Hassan Rouhani's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had launched a campaign calling for US sanctions to be lifted so Iran could access medical relief.
What Was Zarif's Campaign About?
Within weeks of the coronavirus outbreak being officially – belatedly – announced in Iran in February 2020, then-Foreign Minister Zarif embarked on a fresh campaign calling for sanctions to be lifted, saying it would remove barriers to drug exports to Iran. He was supported in this call by a number of Iranians living in the US described by Iranian media as analysts on the country’s affairs.
Using newly-minted hashtags such as #MedicalTerrorism and #EconomicTerrorism, Zarif said amongst other things in March 2020 that US policy would “literally kill innocents”, posting multiple lists of medical equipment and drugs that he said were in short supply in Iran due to sanctions.
He also said then-President Hassan Rouhani had written a letter to foreign heads of state urging them to disregard sanctions, while Rouhani himself published a message directed at “the people of the United States of America”. “Today, the Iranian people are harmed by both the deadly coronavirus and the callous US government policy of economic terrorism inflicted on them... The sanctions have drastically undermined the ability of the Iranian people to fight the coronavirus,” it read.
The campaign appeared to have run out of steam a month later. On April 13, Zarif tweeted: After weeks of trying, Zarif tweeted that the campaign was a failure and wrote: "Despite US sanctions, Iran has made significant progress in fighting the pandemic, thanks to its human & scientific resources, and friends abroad.” Then-Interior Minister Mohammad-Reza Rahmani-Fazli then stated that there was “no shortage” of medical supplies or equipment in Iran for tackling Covid-19.
The US Response to Zarif’s Entreaties
As early as March 6 the US Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a clarification restating that humanitarian donations could be made to non-government entities in Iran and humanitarian commercial sales, including the sale of medical supplies, were permitted to Iranian entities and the government, even where they came from the US – but not to the IRGC. Charities and NGOs could also freely provide medical facilities and services where they would benefit the Iranian people. This was backed up by an interim injunction issued by the International Court of Justice.
Despite the Trump administration's opposition to lifting “maximum pressure” sanctions on the Islamic Republic, the US also repeatedly stated its readiness to send medical supplies and equipment to Iran, including drugs and ventilators for Covid-19 patients. In late March, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The whole world should know humanitarian assistance to Iran is wide open, it’s not sanctioned.”
Whose Politics Impeded Iran’s Vaccine Drive?
The first Covid-19 vaccines, including Pfizer/BionTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca, gained formal approval for use less than a year later. Again, no sanctions were in place that directly prevented Iran’s access to vaccines and on January 6 the governor of Iran’s Central Bank announced the country had made a down-payment for 16.8 million doses of vaccine from COVAX, the global vaccine distribution initiative, on behalf of the Ministry of Health.
Less than 48 hours later the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, banned the import of US- and UK-made Covid-19 vaccines to Iran, saying they were “completely untrustworthy”. It was not until August 11, within a week of Ebrahim Raisi being inaugurated, that Khamenei appeared to change stance on the issue. Tens of thousands of Iranians had lost their lives to Covid-19 during the “fourth wave” of infections that spring.
In his remarks, Bahram Einullahi seemed to imply that international pressure, or political pressure from the US, had restricted Iran’s initial access to vaccines. Sanctions neither blocked Iran’s access to medical supplies during Zarif's time, nor vaccines under the tenure of either Iranian president. Rather, the authorities rejected offers of help.