Iran has repeatedly claimed that US sanctions hinder its access to COVID-19 vaccines. By pushing this message often and loud, it may be hoping to distract from its own mismanagement of the crises that have hit the country.
But experts say that just as the Islamic Republic botched its response to the flu vaccine crisis earlier in the fall, it is also responsible for mishandling the import of recently approved coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines.
It does not help Iran's case that the government has not been forthcoming nor transparent in the information it provides to the public about its access to the vaccines.
President Hassan Rouhani told the cabinet he had instructed Health Ministry officials to buy coronavirus vaccines "from a certain country" without naming it, according to state TV.
He did not mention how many doses of the vaccine have been ordered for purchase.
Rouhani said his government's efforts to buy the COVID-19 vaccine have been hampered by US sanctions.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Saeed Namaki said that while US sanctions continue to hamper Iran's ability to transfer money overseas for the vaccines, "fortunately those knots are being loosened", according to the Iranian Students' News Agency on December 9.
He did not specify how Iran was paying for the doses.
Blaming the sanctions for most, if not all, issues facing Rouhani's government is merely a way of deflecting responsibility and distracting the Iranian public from systemic failures, observers say.
"The fault is their own. The US sanctions make exceptions for foodstuffs and medicine," said a former Iranian naval analyst who wished to remain anonymous.
The US has stressed that sanctions are directed at the Iranian regime, not the people of Iran, and maintains broad exceptions and authorisations for the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine and medical devices to Iran.
"Even under sanctions, 30% of our medicine is imported from the US," Nasser Riahi, chairman of Iranian Pharmaceutical Importers Association, said December 1.
Even when the government does import the COVID-19 vaccines, they are more than likely to end up on the black market, the naval analyst said.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) "would likely have a hand in that and take its share of the profits", he added.
A similar scenario unfolded in the fall after the government repeatedly announced flu shots are not available to the general public due to sanctions.
Over the summer, Iranians were promised a flu vaccine; a promise that was never delivered in time. Reports of Majles members getting flu shots despite the government's claim of vaccine scarcity leaked a few months afterwards.
As of early December, flu shots are available in Iran, but many members of the public are hesitant about receiving them since it is so late in the cold and flu season. Many would also rather not risk going to a medical facility to get the shot because it would mean exposure to COVID-19.
Iran has reported more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus out of more than a million confirmed cases -- the worst outbreak in the Middle East.
Several avenues to acquire vaccine
Last week, IRNA quoted Namaki as saying that while Iran has pre-purchased 16.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine by way of the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s COVAX system, it is also "co-operating with other countries for vaccine production", and human testing for the vaccine will start in Iran in the spring.
A few months ago, the government had announced it was "prepared to co-operate" with the Chinese to develop a vaccine, which the Iranian medical community bluntly disapproved of. There was no further reporting on that, and China went on with its efforts to develop a vaccine without mentioning Iran.
There were scattered reports about a similar co-operation with Russia, or possible purchase of the vaccine from Moscow, which Iranian experts also disapproved of.
The WHO has not approved any of the vaccines produced in China and Russia.
On December 7th, Masoud Mardani, a member of the government's Headquarters to Combat the coronavirus, said "the sanctions will have no effect on [Iran's] access to the coronavirus vaccine." The WHO also has confirmed that it will provide Iran with the vaccine.
Shahin Mohammadi, a Washington-based Iranian journalist, told Al-Mashareq that what senior officials have been circulating about US sanctions preventing Iran from getting the vaccine are "lies".
"Iran has multiple avenues to acquire the coronavirus vaccine, the flu vaccine, and any other medicines it needs," he said.
"The avenues include the US Treasury's waivers for the export of food and medicine, the mechanism that the US set up with Switzerland, and INSTEX," he said, referring to the acronym for the European Union's financial instrument to conduct limited business with Iran.