Iran has begun its vaccine rollout with Russia’s Sputnik V, but a labyrinth of government crackdowns, cover-ups, and conspiracy theories have cast a shadow over the nation’s pandemic response. In the past year, the Iranian government has denied the pandemic’s spread within its borders; falsified official data on pandemic deaths; introduced a dud “coronavirus detector,” and banned the importation of American and British vaccines.
According to government officials, Iran’s vaccine rollout will occur in four phases, starting with a projected vaccination goal of 18 million in medical staff and vulnerable populations by next winter, when general public vaccination begins. But, as one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, much of the damage has already been done: the Islamic Republic’s reported COVID-19 death toll is nearing 60,000, the highest in the Middle East; its economy, which had already been mired by low global oil prices, mismanagement, corruption, and U.S. sanctions before the pandemic hit, is tanking.
The Islamic Republic’s disastrous response to the pandemic began early last year, when officials altogether denied that the virus was spreading in Iran in order to encourage public attendance at several high-profile events, including commemorations of Quds Force military commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the 2020 parliamentary elections. Iran’s first pandemic-induced death was recorded in late January, a month before officials had made any acknowledgement of the spread of the virus within the nation, according to a BBC report in August. Mahan Air, Iran’s largest flight carrier, continued flights to China and elsewhere despite government bans, becoming a symbol of the pandemic’s spread in the Middle East. A viral video of deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi visibly sick at a press conference, attempting to reassure the public that the pandemic was under control, only to test positive a day later, presented a chilling omen of mistakes and cover-ups to come.
One of the stranger twists in Iran’s pandemic response was the unveiling of a “COVID-19 detection device” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC’s top commander, Major General Hossein Salami, claimed that the hand-held device used magnetic waves to instantly detect COVID-19 infections from up to 100 meters away. The widely mocked project dead-ended, but the episode raised serious questions about the aptitude of the top commander, and why no senior officials had rebuked him in public. From the pandemic’s onset, Iran amplified Russian and Chinese disinformation about the plague, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei floating false claims that the virus was American in origin, and that it was “specifically built for Iran using Iranians’ genetic data.”
These dubious, government-backed efforts stoked a general environment of misinformation spreading on social media, including rumors that targeted officials. Other questionable figures offered their own bizarre “prescriptions” for COVID-19: in a viral video, a self-proclaimed Islamic medicine healer promoted the consumption of camel urine as a way of preventing and curing the virus. In another case, a cleric recommended the anal insertion of cotton wool drenched in violet oil.
Even after acknowledging the pandemic’s spread, the Islamic Republic focused its efforts on cracking down on whistleblowers who warned of a far wider infection rate than that reported by the government. In late April 2020, a law enforcement official declared that authorities arrested 3,600 people for spreading “fake news” about the pandemic. Despite the Islamic Republic’s attempt to control the narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic, doubts persisted. In April, a parliamentary research committee reported that actual virus deaths were about double the official figure. The BBC’s August investigation found that the actual infected figure was twice as high as reported by the government, and death tolls were three times as high.
Suspicions that U.S. sanctions were impeding Iran’s fight to combat COVID-19 have lingered. Although the U.S. has exempted humanitarian aid from sanctions, financial institutions have reportedly been reluctant to do business with Iranian banks, which have received terrorism designations from the U.S. َIran is also on the blacklist of the anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF), adding another layer of risk.
In April, the Trump administration blocked Tehran’s request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), citing concerns that the Islamic Republic would spend the money on “adventurism abroad” instead of buying medicine for Iranians. Instead, the Trump administration offered to provide humanitarian assistance to combat the virus—a proposal that was ultimately rejected by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Then, about a week into 2021, Khamenei banned American and British vaccines, turning away 150,000 Pfizer vaccines dispatched to Iran from American donors. “If their Pfizer company can produce vaccines, why don’t they use it themselves so that they don’t have so many dead? The same applies to Britain,” he said, adding that the U.S. may want to test vaccines on “other nations.” Like clockwork, Islamic Republic officials and state media lept into action, churning out lies about the dangers of taking Western-made vaccines, which Khameini had labeled untrustworthy. A report from Iran International later showed how Khamenei’s order had disrupted a detailed plan by the Health Ministry to administer vaccines across the country.
At the time, the vaccine ban was only the latest blow to Iranians who had already been suffering from a spiralling economy made worse by the pandemic. Suicide and psychological issues among citizens have reached a critical point. And although Tehran’s recent approval and rollout of Russia’s Sputnik V has offered some glimmer of hope, it hasn’t been without controversy. One of Iran’s top infectious disease experts called the Sputnik V rollout “a misfortune for our people,” citing concerns about the vaccine having yet to receive approval from The World Health Organization or the European Medicines Agency. To assuage suspicions, the son of Iran’s health minister took the jab on a live television broadcast.
In addition to Sputnik V, Iran is receiving 4.2 million doses of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine under the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, though officials have been keen on emphasizing its Swedish connection, rather than its British one. The nation is also working on a joint vaccine venture with Cuba, and is in trials for two additional homegrown vaccines.
But Iran is not yet out of the woods. Even the Islamic Republic’s own statistics suggest that the country is about to face its fourth COVID-19 wave. “This is a warning for all of us,” said President Hassan Rouhani in a recently televised statement, in which he called for collective vigilance as the nation faces its next pandemic surge. For anyone who has been paying attention to Iran’s pandemic response over the past year, the time lost to disinformation schemes and geopolitical showboating has been warning enough.