Iran's Supreme Leader on Friday (January 8) banned the government from importing COVID-19 vaccines from the US and UK, limiting the country's options as it confronts the worst outbreak in the Middle East.
"Importing vaccines made in the US or the UK is prohibited," Ali Khamenei said in a tweet.
In a live televised speech prior to that, Khamenei said the vaccines were "untrustworthy", adding that perhaps the US and UK "want to test their vaccines on other nations".
"If Pfizer can produce a vaccine, the US should use it for its own people," he said, adding that he is not "optimistic" about a French vaccine either.
The US had approved the sale of COVID-19 vaccines to Iran on December 28.
Nations around the world have already started receiving or signed up to receive the US's scrupulously tested Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the UK's Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
On Friday, Britain approved a third coronavirus vaccine for its mass inoculation drive, as regulators gave the green light to a jab developed by US firm Moderna.
Politics over people
In his latest speech, Khamenei said "there is no issue with importing vaccines from countries other than the US and the UK, if that is feasible".
While Iranian officials have thus far denied plans to purchase a Chinese vaccine, the Red Crescent on Friday said the government has informed them that COVID-19 vaccines will be provided through "an Eastern country".
Existing relationships and trade agreements point to the strong likelihood of the purchase of a Chinese or Russian vaccine by Iran. However, Iranian health experts have previously warned against the purchase of these vaccines, noting they only approve of vaccines scrutinized by the US's FDA or the EU's health authorities.
They took this stance due to the proven low quality and side effects of Chinese vaccines. Phase 3 trials of China's Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine have found it was only 79% effective.
International observers have also expressed doubt over Russia's Sputnik V vaccine since it was first announced in August, raising concerns that the Kremlin's "race" to be the first to develop a vaccine could impact efficacy and safety.
According to official data, as of late December, over 1.2 million Iranians have contracted COVID-19, some 55,000 of whom have died. However, even Iran's health officials admit the number of infections and deaths are much higher than official statistics indicate.
Both the Rouhani administration and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is partly responsible for managing the ongoing coronavirus crisis, have been largely unsuccessful in controlling the outbreak.
They have resorted to false narratives to conceal their own mismanagement. With his Friday remarks, Khamenei proves that he prefers, and chooses, political alliances over the Iranian public's health and interests.
While the Iranian regime has bungled its response to the COVID-19 crisis, it has falsely blamed US sanctions, under the maximum pressure campaign, for the shortage in essential medications for the Iranian people.
Distrust of Iranian vaccine
Meanwhile, Iran is working on developing its own vaccine and has begun human trials on volunteers.
But people interviewed around the region have already expressed distrust of any Iran manufactured vaccine, saying that the preference to use a US- or European-made vaccine is based on scientific research, rather than geopolitical or sectarian factors.
"If I had to choose between two vaccines, one from the US and the other from Iran, then I would of course choose the first because it is more trustworthy," said Lina Mruweh, a public school teacher in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon.
Egyptian doctor Tariq Mohammed, who specialises in epidemiology and virology, also expressed scepticism about a potential Iranian-made vaccine.
"I have no confidence in Iranian medical products in general, as they have no place on the pharmaceuticals map of the Middle East, North Africa and Egypt," he said.
"In choosing a vaccine, Iraq relies entirely on those approved by the World Health Organisation, and any vaccine approved by this organisation will be approved in the country," Dr. Salah Ghayyad, spokesman for Iraq's Dhi Qar Health Department, said in November.
On Thursday, deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said that Iran has inked a deal to buy vaccines through the WHO's COVAX system, and that this was the only deal it has entered for vaccine purchases.
Shortly after Khamenei's remarks, Iran's Red Crescent Society announced the cancellation of an existing deal for 150,000 shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine donated by philanthropists in the US, which was set to be sent to Iran in the coming weeks.