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Covid-19: Khamenei's vaccine ban exposes flaw in Iran's political system

Placing ideology over societal health, Iran's supreme leader has banned the import of American and British vaccines
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on 8 January 2021 (Khamenei.ir/AFP)

The Iranian Shia clergy’s justification for their very existence is that Islam, like any other area of human knowledge, needs its own experts to explain its complexities to followers. 

In a 1979 speech, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led Iran’s revolution that year, said: “Each subject needs its own expert. If a patient says I don’t care about my prescription, I know how to treat myself, he may die.” In 1981, he emphasised that “if the clergy didn’t exist, Islam would have vanished. These are Islam experts who protected Islam until now.”

Quranic verses have also been cited to entrench this position. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi has referenced verse 43 of Surah an-Nahl (the Honey Bees), which states: “So ask those who possess knowledge if you do not know.” He argues that, based on this verse, “followers of religion should follow mujtahids” - scholars in the Shia tradition who meet certain requirements, including a strong knowledge of Islam. 

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also referred to verse 122 of Surah at-Tawbah (the Repentance), which says: “And the believers should not go forth to war altogether. But why should not a party from every community of them mobilise to acquire profound, correct knowledge and understanding of religion and warn their people when they return to them.” He argued that, based on this verse, “each society needs Islamic experts, faqih [an Islamic jurist], and religion propagators of its own.” 

Khamenei's contradictions

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to be an expert on Islam, listed as a qualified jurist by the Qom Teachers Association. Yet, during his 32-year tenure, Khamenei has repeatedly contradicted the rationale that justifies the clergy’s necessity. He not only expresses opinions on a variety of affairs of the nation, but also demands the implementation of those opinions, despite having little or no knowledge in those fields. This negates the clergy’s argument that every discipline needs its own expertise to form credible opinions. 

If expertise is not required to understand different areas of human knowledge, then the clergy cannot monopolise the understanding of Islam

Khamenei sets rules in various areas of people’s lives unrelated to religion, from foreign policy to the nuclear programme to the economy, and even to the number of children that people should have.

Amid Iran’s economic crisis, he has maintained that increasing the number of children should become the norm: “When the population is large, righteous individuals will naturally be larger in number, capabilities will naturally be more and human resources will obviously be more advanced.”

If expertise is not required to understand different areas of human knowledge, then the clergy cannot monopolise the understanding of Islam. So why does Khamenei unflinchingly interfere in the nation’s affairs, while viewing and understanding those affairs through a thick ideological lens? 

'Our people will not be a testing device'

Khamenei, as the leader of the state and in the role of Vali-ye faqih (guardian jurist), has issued a fatwa that makes all three branches of government irrelevant and obliges them to implement his views, noting: “According to the Shia religion, all Muslims have to obey the order of the Guardian Jurist and submit to his commands. This edict even applies to other grand ayatollahs … If there is a contradiction between the authority of and decisions made by the Guardian Jurist and the whole people, the jurist’s authority and decisions have priority.”

In his latest intervention in an area that could put the lives of millions of Iranians at risk, Khamenei said on 8 January: “Imports of US and British vaccines into the country are forbidden. I have told this to officials and I’m saying it publicly now.” 

Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are pictured on 14 January 2021 (AFP)
Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are pictured on 14 January 2021 (AFP)

In a statement that displayed ignorance of the situation, he noted: “If they can create a vaccine, if their Pfizer factory can manufacture a vaccine, then why do they want to give it to us? They should consume it themselves so they wouldn’t have so many deaths.” Looking at the issue through his ideological worldview, he said: “Our people will not be a testing device for vaccine-manufacturing companies.” 

He went even further, saying it was possible that the US would “send some people, under the cover of experts who want to fight coronavirus, to observe the effectiveness of the virus, which is said to have been partly generated specially for Iran”.

Government falls in line

As usual, immediately after Khamenei’s public announcement of the ban, government officials fell in line by criticising western vaccines. Health Minister Saeed Namaki wasted no time in commenting: “The Leader’s recommendation regarding not buying American and British vaccines is based on large-scale scientific research.” He did not elaborate on who conducted the research and where. 

Three days later, 200 of the 290 members of the current hardline parliament that, in Khamenei’s words, “is one of the strongest and most revolutionary parliaments in the post-revolutionary era”, echoed support for him in a statement, noting: “Due to evidence of shock, side effects and even deaths in some cases after injecting the vaccines, including those from Pfizer … the government should ban the import of vaccines produced by American, British and French companies.” 

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Iranians responded with a storm of anger on social media. In clear opposition to Khamenei’s remarks, Iran’s Medical Council sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying: “As representatives of the medical community in Iran… [we ask you to] stay away from political issues…and meet the obvious rights of the people.”

Over the last three decades, Khamenei’s decisions, many of which were ideologically motivated, have caused hardships for the Iranian people. Yes, the US political system’s grand strategy seeks to maintain unipolarity and its own hegemony, and with regards to Israel, the US has abetted occupation, settler violence and land grabs for decades. But Khamenei’s purely ideological doctrine of “no talks, no detente” with the US has neither helped Palestinians nor Iranians, a vast portion of whom are struggling to survive. 

Khamenei brags, saying: “I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary.” That is all good to satisfy his base, but the poor are paying the price. And this time, with the decision to ban American and British vaccines, they may pay with their lives. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Shahir Shahidsaless
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahidsaless.