Covid-19 patient Marhamat Asadi, who is in a medically induced coma, is tended by nurses Fatemeh Najmeh Sadeghi, left, and Fereshteh Babakhanlou at the COVID-19 ICU ward of Amir Al-Momenin hospital in the city of Qom, Iran, Sept. 15, 2021.

Covid-19 patient Marhamat Asadi, who is in a medically induced coma, is tended by nurses Fatemeh Najmeh Sadeghi, left, and Fereshteh Babakhanlou at the COVID-19 ICU ward of Amir Al-Momenin hospital in the city of Qom, Iran, Sept. 15, 2021. AP / Vahid Salemi

America Should Help Iran Get COVID Vaccines

There are at least two national-security reasons Biden should seize this opportunity.

Following withering criticism amid a deadly fifth wave of COVID-19 in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears to have done something he is often loath to do: reverse himself. Earlier in the year, Khamenei banned COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in the West, which was implemented as a ban on the most effective vaccines: those produced by Moderna and Pfizer. Now, he has said that Iran should take any steps to secure vaccines, with officials clarifying that there is no longer a ban on any vaccine. This welcome move creates an opportunity that the Biden administration must seize. 

It is of utmost importance that Iranians are included in President Biden’s pledge to vaccinate the world. Doing so would not just be a necessary goodwill gesture to the Iranian people at a time of diplomatic deadlock over the nuclear issue but would also help curtail the spread of COVID variants that threaten everyone. By helping the world’s most vulnerable, President Biden would be making the planet a safer place and rebuilding U.S. influence in a way that can help address other problems, whether that be multilateral diplomacy with Iran, various regional crises, or climate change.

Earlier in the pandemic, after reports emerged that U.S. sanctions were obstructing Iran’s ability to pay for vaccines through the World Health Organization’s Covax program, the Treasury Department exempted financial transactions involving vaccines and medical equipment needed to combat COVID. This helped Iran import larger quantities of vaccines, though most are still the relatively ineffective Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. Now the U.S. can do more to ensure Iran gets the superior mRNA vaccines and other medical aid. 

This would have two major benefits for U.S. national security interests. First, it would check the spread of COVID in the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, which will diminish the odds that more transmissible, lethal, and vaccine-resistant variants will emerge. Second, the Iranian Foreign Minister has said that enabling COVID aid to reach Iran would send a “good” signal about American intentions. This could smooth the Biden administration’s negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal.

The need for increased COVID aid to Iran is dire and Iran’s government deserves much blame for mismanaging the crisis. Khamenei’s ban was harshly criticized, and rightly so. In one video that went viral on Iranian social media, a young woman screams and mourns her husband’s death, directly blaming Khamenei for obstructing vaccine procurement. Meanwhile, public officials are busy pointing fingers: Health Ministry officials have scapegoated the Foreign Ministry for not procuring vaccines, while the former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said higher-up authorities rejected his procurement of 20 million doses from Europe. 

Things only got worse in August, when the Delta variant hit Iran. More than 700 people died on one recent day. Surveying the chaotic, war-like scene in Iranian hospitals, one Iranian official said, “Only the smell of gunpowder is not inhaled and the color of blood is not seen.” 

The pandemic has caused immense human suffering in a country where much of the population was already toiling under severe economic hardship from years of sanctions. More than 120,000 Iranians are confirmed to have died from COVID-19, as of Sept. 27— and Iranian health ministry officials say the actual death toll is at least twice that. A study by BBC Persian found that there were 200,000 excess deaths in Iran during the pandemic. 

Hospitals in major metropolitan areas in Iran have been dangerously over capacity. At the peak of the Delta wave, Iran ranked fifth in the world in terms of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in intensive care units—after the U.S., India, Brazil, and Columbia—and countrywide there is increasingly a lack of ICU beds. While vaccinations have steadily increased pace in recent weeks, many vaccinations centers for months had closed operations “until further notice” due to a lack of vaccines.

Iran has so far imported vaccines through three channels: purchasing them through WHO’s Covax program by using funds frozen by sanctions in countries like Iraq and South Korea, purchasing them from China via the Iranian Red Crescent, and receiving them as gifts, mostly from Japan and South Korea.

President Biden should fast-track the export of mRNA vaccines, such as those produced by Moderna and Pfizer. These have proven to be safe, effective, and are relatively quickly produced. This can be done through WHO’s Covax program, Pfizer and Moderna subsidiaries abroad, or third countries. For example, Iran’s Foreign Minister has been in talks with his German counterpart to import the Pfizer vaccine. President Biden should greenlight third countries going through with these transactions and ensure that Moderna and Pfizer subsidiaries in Europe have enough vaccines to meet orders from Iran. The U.S. can also unfreeze some of Iran’s assets abroad to use exclusively for purchasing medical goods. These transactions can be routed through the U.S.-Treasury Department designed Swiss financial channel with Iran, which has enhanced due diligence standards.

Exporting vaccines should be the most urgent priority for the Biden administration. The fact is, America will never be secure from the virus until the world is secure. President Biden could be a global hero here, and for the Iranian people, it cannot come soon enough.

Sina Toossi is a Senior Research Analyst at the National Iranian American Council. He tweets @SinaToossi.