The Middle East is changing. Israelis now splurge at Gucci and Rolex in Dubai. Saudi women speed down desert highways; and once again Turkish leaders kneel before the call to prayer. One thing, however, remains unchanging: the Iranian government’s ability to find new and evermore sadistic ways of persecuting its own people.
Yesterday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced on live TV that Iran would reject the American BioNTech-Pfizer and British Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. 'Imports of US and British vaccines into the country are banned. I have told this to officials and I'm saying it publicly now,' he said.
This statement is typical in that it both defies belief and is yet utterly unsurprising. Coronavirus hit Iran hard. We now know, from the sterling investigative work of my friend Jake Wallis Simons, that the daily flights from China to Tehran began to take a toll as far back as last January, when three Chinese embassy employees were hospitalised with Covid-19 symptoms. Soon the virus spread across Iran, thanks in large part to the government’s refusal to shut the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom. Thousands came from across Iran to worship there before fanning out across the country as they returned home. All, as the Iranians say: in the name of god.
Iran is in the grip of a public health emergency. Late last year its deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi warned that the country should 'prepare for a third coronavirus wave'. That has arrived. As we enter mid-January 2021 there are over 1.2 million recorded cases with 56,018 deaths and over 6000 new cases a day.
Iranians are trapped. They die when they’re in lockdown, and they die when they are allowed out. Late 2019 saw mass riots against a hike in the price of petrol, the last straw in a succession of economic blows for the people. The regime killed at least 180 people — and possibly hundreds more. It was the worst violence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Mullahs were scared; and they were right to be.
Coronavirus saved them from more mass protests and the increased killing that they would have required. But in truth they’ve merely been storing their problems up. One day the Iranian people will be let out: and they’ll be poorer and sicker and angrier than before. If you want to successfully cow a people, you must make them fear you; and you do this by threatening what they have and care about most. If you put them in a position that they no longer have anything to lose, eventually you will lose.
Logic then would dictate that Khamenei must grab onto any lifeline had can. But dictatorships don’t work on logic, or rather their logic is of the perverted sort. Considered this way: his decision makes perfect sense. The 'thin end of the wedge' is a cliché and therefore linguistically tired, but as a cliché it retains aphoristic value. Khamenei knows that the Islamic Republic can’t countenance any sort of détente with the West, when one of its key ideological justifications is resistance to the Great Satan and the 'pernicious influence' of Western culture. This means no western TV or fashion or sport, and definitely no western vaccine to solve a problem that your own negligence has made worse.
Khamenei also knows that with Joe Biden taking office in days US diplomacy will once more focus on Iran’s nuclear program. Since Donald Trump unilaterally ditched the nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has gradually restarted work on various nuclear activities. Nothing major has been done. The moves are about messaging rather than tangible nuclear progress, and the message is clear: give us a deal or we continue onwards. The Israelis, meanwhile, sent their own message when they whacked Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a man at the heart of Iran’s programme, and it was equally clear: administrations may change, security concerns do not.
Khamenei needs a deal. He needs the financial relief it brings. He needs to be able to sell Iranian oil to the world once more, and he needs international investment in Iran’s energy sector to bring it, if not into the 21st century, at least the late 20th. So he’s going to have to compromise with the West; and if that’s the case, he will make sure his people know that it’s not about to become a habit. So no vaccine for the Iranian people, who once more must die, so that the regime might live.