On January 8, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned the import of United States and United Kingdom Covid-19 vaccines, making the announcement during a live, televised speech. The reason for the ban, he said, was that the two countries were not “trustworthy”. This decree means that vaccines that could save Iranians from infection and death are now forbidden from being brought into Iran.
Following this speech, the spokesman for Iran’s Red Crescent Society announced that the import of 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine that had been donated to Iran by philanthropists had been canceled.
How does Khaemeni's ban fit in with international law? Isn’t Khamenei criminally responsible for banning medications needed to protect the health and lives of Iranians?
With this unprecedented action over the course of the 42-year history of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei has politically breached the sanctum of the health and lives of Iranians by banning the import of medical necessities through statements that clearly and directly announce his political prejudices and positions. This ban is the most serious threat against Iranians’ right to health and right to life, rights that the Islamic Republic, like any other government in the world, is duty-bound to protect to the best of its ability.
Science and scientific achievements, especially in the field of medicine, do not have nationalities, and it is the duty of every government to safeguard the lives and the health of its citizens under any conditions and regardless of their political differences with other countries.
The right to life and the right to health are the most basic human rights and reaffirmed in the constitution of the World Health Organization, of which Iran is a member. These rights are also enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Islamic Republic is a signatory to this covenant as well. Article 12 of the covenant specifically states that member countries must take the necessary steps to ensure these rights by “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” and by the “creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”
The right to health is also included in other conventions to which the Islamic Republic is a member, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Children. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on importing coronavirus vaccines made by companies endorsed by the World Health Organization is the most serious direct threat to the health and the lives of Iranians in the last four decades. This becomes even more sinister if we remember that the Islamic Republic has procured arms and military equipment from any source that it has been able to, even during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. It even purchased arms from Israel, a country that Islamic Republic officials have stated has no right to exist. But now, when it comes to the health and the lives of Iranian citizens, Khamenei has banned the import of Covid-19 vaccines from the US and the UK, claiming that these countries might be testing them on people in other countries to see if they work or not.
Lies and baseless statements from the Islamic Republic are as old as the regime itself. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeatedly called US sanctions “economic terrorism”. President Rouhani has coined the term “medical terrorism” and Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, has accused the US of “crimes against humanity” by falsely claiming US sanctions apply to medicine.
An Accessory to Crime
From a legal point of view, using these terms to describe sanctions is baseless, especially since medical equipment and medicine are exempt from American sanctions. Even if one were to assume that such claims by the officials of the Islamic Republic were correct and the sanctions are indeed economic and medical terrorism and crimes against humanity carried out by the US against Iran, then Ayatollah Khamenei’s opposition to engaging with the US to remove these sanctions throughout the years makes him an accessory to these crimes.
In other words, if we do accept claims by the Islamic Republic that American sanctions are forms of economic terrorism and crimes against humanity and President Donald Trump is the criminal, then Khamenei is an accessory to these crimes because he has aided and abetted the criminal in his actions and bears as much responsibility for the crime as Trump does.
The 82-year-old Khamenei has been the head of the Islamic Republic regime for more than 30 years. His order to ban the import of vaccines made by the US and the UK is tantamount to approval of US sanctions, whereas the US had announced that medicine was not on its list of sanctions when it withdrew from the nuclear treaty and reimposed sanctions. Now it is Khamenei who has placed sanctions on the medicine that more than 80 million Iranians need in their desperate fight against the pandemic.
Considering that efforts by Iran, China and Russia to make Covid-19 vaccines have yet to be approved by the World Health Organization, Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on importing vaccines violates Iranians’ right to life and the right to health and, from the viewpoint of international criminal law, he is criminally responsible if it leads to fatalities and diminished health among Iranians.