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When It Comes To COVID-19, Iran Is Dealt A Double Whammy


COVID vaccines are being rolled out in several corners of the world. But some countries don't have nearly the access to the vaccines as others, that includes Iran and its 80 million people. Efforts to secure enough vaccines there are being hampered by the Trump administration's sanctions and Iran's own government. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When it comes to COVID, Iran has been delivered a double whammy. It's one of the worst hit countries by the pandemic in the Middle East. And it may not have money to buy vaccines. On that point, the Trump administration has placed tight sanctions on Iran because of what it calls its malign behavior in the region, making it harder for Iran to get its oil money.

ESFANDYAR BATMANGHELIDJ: We're talking about money that was accrued as part of Iran's oil sales.

NORTHAM: Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is the founder of Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, a think tank focused on Iran's economy. Billions of dollars of Iran's oil revenues are frozen in international banks even though medicine is supposed to be exempted from U.S. sanctions.

BATMANGHELIDJ: Even if things are technically permissible by the letter of U.S. law, there have been so many mixed messages on the part of U.S. authorities around whether or not it is, in any way, advisable or permissible to allow Iran to access any of its funds.

NORTHAM: For example, Iran has been pressuring South Korea for payment of $7 billion worth of oil. But Tara Sepehri Far, with Human Rights Watch, says the South Korean banks are wary of crossing the Trump administration.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: The banks did their own due diligence, assess risk assessment. And they decided that they're not willing to take the risk because they can be responsible for sanction violations if anything goes wrong.

NORTHAM: Earlier this month, in a move widely seen as trying to force the issue, Iran seized a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf. But Iran does have some vaccine possibilities. It appeared to have lined up millions of doses from an entity called COVAX, which is a partnership through the World Health Organization that helps countries get vaccines at rock-bottom prices. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj again.

BATMANGHELIDJ: The initial payment that appears to have been made, according to Iranian reports from funds held in Iraq, basically secures Iran's allocation for 17 million doses of the vaccine. But that's only about 10% of the need for Iran if it's going to engage in a broad, national vaccination program.

NORTHAM: Iran was also promised 150,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Iranians living in the U.S. But earlier this month, that order, along with the doses from COVAX, were suddenly canceled.


SUPREME LEADER ALI KHAMENEI: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, banned the purchase of any vaccine coming from the U.S. or the U.K., saying he doesn't trust the two Western nations' vaccines. Behnam Ben Taleblu, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says he's not surprised by Khamenei's roadblock.

BEHNAM BEN TALEBLU: The humanitarian crisis is one of the regime's own making. Banning the import or the delivery of U.S. and U.K. vaccines, to me, is the latest iteration of a saga we've been seeing for 41 years, which is the Islamic Republic putting regime interests over national interests and the public good.

NORTHAM: But Iran may have found a way around that ban. A state backed news agency says it will allow the British vaccine, but only doses produced in India. Human Rights Watch's Sepehri Far says Iran is also trying other options.

FAR: Iran is starting the first phase of human trial of their own vaccine.

NORTHAM: But developing its own vaccine could take years. And if a country the size of Iran is left without, it could jeopardize efforts to eradicate COVID worldwide.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NYMANO AND HYUME'S "BLURRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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