Does Ayatollah Khamenei want to make Iran into North Korea?

Does Ayatollah Khamenei want to make Iran into North Korea?

Comment: Khamenei's US/UK vaccines ban isn't just the usual anti-western sentiment, it's proof his regime cares little for Iranian lives, and signals even more radical times ahead, writes Arash Azizi.
6 min read
11 Jan, 2021
Khamenei announced last week that Iran would ban US or UK manufactured Covid-19 vaccines [Getty]
At first glance, the recent outburst by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in line with his habitual anti-Americanism. Speaking on live television, Khamenei declared a ban on importing any Covid-19 vaccines made in the US or UK. He specifically named the vaccine made by the American company Pfizer which has already helped immunize millions of people in the US and around the globe. 

In most countries, competent health authorities decide on which vaccine should be used. Iran has no shortage of credible health professionals and has historically been a hotspot for medical tourists from the region. But in the increasingly authoritarian Islamic Republic, Khamenei gets to override decisions of any and all political bodies in the country.

This dictatorial prerogative even has its own term in the Iranian political lexicon: '
Hokme Hokoomati' (or 'state edict'), a term first used in 2000 when Khamenei vetoed an attempt to amend press law. So it is no surprise that Khamenei has broken his own previous pledge that only the National Center for Countering Coronavirus will decide on vaccination matters.

A word from the Supreme Leader now means more than deliberations by any and all professionals. Hours after Khamenei's speech, Iran's Red Crescent Society declared that it had 
cancelled a donation of 150,000 doses of Pfizer made by Iranian-American philanthropists. 

In the same speech, Khamenei also engaged in plotting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. He claimed the westerners wanted to "test their vaccines on other nations" and implied that they were designed to purposefully hurt Iranians. And it wasn't the first time. Back in March, in his annual speech to mark the Iranian new year, Khamenei baselessly claimed that the Americans had created the Coronavirus, "based on identification of Iranian genetics and specifically for Iran." 

As his terms come to an end, Iran is ever more repressive and economically distraught

A Janus-faced regime 

Familiar as Khamenei's anti-American outburst may be, it also represents a shift. Iran's regime leaders are used to making loud noises about the West while happily sending their kids there to study. The current Iranian cabinet is full of US graduates. Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs, Masoome Ebtekar, best known as the spokesperson for the Islamist students who attacked the US embassy in 1979 and took American diplomats hostage, recently admitted that her son was studying in the US. 

Despite years of official campaigns against "Cultural Invasion" by the West, the textbooks at Iranian universities and the general scientific culture of the country is closely tied to European and American institutions. Among the leaders in developing the Pfizer vaccine is the Turkish-born German scientist Ugur Sahin, CEO of the German company BioNTech.

Sahin was invited to Iran in 2019 to get an award worth half a million dollars from Alireza Marandi, head of Iran's Academy of Medical Sciences and Khamenei's personal doctor. In short, Iran has long had a Janus-faced reality: The regime claims it is an anti-western bastion, but in practice it has often sought relations with the West, including the US. 

Read more: 'Playing with our lives': Iran's medics urge authorities to import British, American Covid vaccines

But this Janus-faced reality has long been contested by different factions which can be generally divided into three: First, a liberal-democratic faction whose dream is for Iran to be a South Korea, a prosperous democratic nation. This faction has been heavily repressed and is currently next to non-existent in the halls of power. 

Second, the self-described Moderate (Etedal) faction which unites conservatives and reformists around a technocratic vision. Represented by President Hassan Rouhani, this faction prioritises relations with the West and abhors anti-western populism.

Third, there is a hardline anti-western faction which wants Iran to reduce ties to the West, prioritise its anti-Israel regional alliances and join Russia and/or China in a broader anti-western alliance.

Khamenei often defends this third faction since his own base of power and his praetorian guard, the mammoth militia Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), belong to it. But while he has helped crush the liberal-democratic faction, he has always kept the technocratic faction afloat. After all, without his approval, Rouhani could not have run for president, nor could he have signed the Iran Deal of 2015 with the US and other partners.

The negotiations that led to the deal were heavily contested by the hardline faction whose outlets portrayed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as a westernising adversary. While Khamenei often backed Zarif, who is known to be personally loyal to him, he also tried to maintain an ambivalent or even contradictory position on the Iran Deal.

In this balancing act, Khamenei wants to use every chance to lift sanctions that have severely weakened Iran's economy while also resisting the strengthening of moderate, pro-West factions. 

Radical actions like banning the US/UK covid vaccines might be a taste of what's to come

Trump's aggressive policy towards Iran and his exit from the Iran Deal was a gift from heaven for the hardline faction. Rouhani has lost his popularity since Iran's severe economic decline, and international isolation means that he has failed in all of his promises. As his terms come to an end, Iran is ever more repressive and economically distraught. Iranians are having the worst of both worlds. 

In June, the country heads into a presidential election in which the hardline faction is presumed to win. Radical actions like banning the US/UK covid vaccines might be a taste of what's to come: an attempt to turn Iran to a fortress-like ideological regime, as isolated and rigid as Kim Jong-un's North Korea.

Wide-ranging disgust at Khamenei's anti-vaccine edict from Iranians all over the political spectrum signals that such moves will engender resistance. The mood of many Iranians is best encapsulated by a statement published by the student union of Tehran's Sharif University on the first anniversary of the shooting down of an Ukrainian airliner by the IRGC which cost the lives of 176 people, most of them Iranians.

The regime simply doesn't care for Iranian lives; a position confirmed by Khamenei's edict

The statement addressed the regime officials in no uncertain terms: "We hate you and your lies, your irresponsibility and your long list of crimes." It protested that the regime simply doesn't care for Iranian lives; a position confirmed by Khamenei's edict. 

As the Biden administration seeks a new Iran policy, it should pursue diplomatic engagement that can weaken the hardline factions and reduce Iran's isolation. Such a policy might even affect the presidential elections and prevent a total hardliner takeover. This is no panacea and should be coupled with pressure on human rights and continued support to Iranian civil society. After all, there are no easy fixes in dealing with a regime headed by a dictator so callous about his own people's lives. But at 81, Khamenei is in the twilight of his life; the Iranian people continue to hope for a better future despite all the odds against them.

Arash Azizi is a writer, translator and PhD candidate at NYU. He is the author of the book, 'The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions'

Follow him on Twitter: @Arash_Tehran

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.