Vaccine diplomacy is—for the moment—an arena of great power competition. China and Russia are trying to buy the goodwill of Iran’s regime by giving the country vaccines. As strange as it may seem, considering the decades of hostility from the regime since the 1979 revolution, the United States is well positioned to use some vaccine diplomacy of its own in Iran. The Chinese and the Russians want to win over the regime; let us win over the people.
Some context: Last week saw the first round of negotiations aimed at returning Iran to compliance with (and the United States back into participation in) the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018. The United States is joined at the negotiating table by the rest of the U.N. Security Council (Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom), as well as Germany and the EU.
Any new agreement would include the release of Iran’s frozen assets. About $20 billion of such assets are held by China and $7 billion by South Korea, which has agreed to release them in exchange for Iran’s release of South Korea hostages. Another $10 billion is held by other U.S. allies and partners.
Iran’s economy is under enormous pressure. That was true before the pandemic, but the pandemic has hurt it even more. The country lags behind most of the world in vaccine deployment—in part because of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s declaration that Iran will not purchase vaccines from the United States or the United Kingdom. (There is good reason to believe, though, that the regime’s leaders vaccinated themselves after the evil and imperialist Pfizer gave them 150,000 doses for free.) Blacklisting the U.S. and U.K. vaccines has left Iranians with only Chinese, Russian, and perhaps Cuban vaccine varieties. The problem is that the Iranian people are wary of those varieties.
Iran’s government mishandled the pandemic from the get-go, and things worsened with time. Even as things have gotten better in many other countries, new COVID cases in Iran keep peaking—including a record-breaking surge this month.
This puts the United States in a unique position: Give the Iranian people an olive branch. Last week, Dalibor Roháč made the case that the United States should vaccinate the world—and that we should understand vaccine diplomacy in the context of great power competition with China and Russia. Those countries are trying to vaccinate others in exchange for influence. The United States should too—and Iran should be part of that effort.
How much would it cost? If the United States were to provide 160 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine so Iran’s entire population can receive two (set aside, for the purposes of this back-of-the-envelope calculation, the fact that the vaccine is not now being administered to children), the cost would come to about $3.2 billion. That figure may seem dauntingly high, but it is well below the total of Iran’s frozen assets held by U.S. allies and partners. It would require some effort from the Biden administration—to get those allies on board and presumably to have Congress pass a law permitting the use of frozen funds—but at least in theory the United States could use those Iranian assets to pay for the vaccines.
There is no doubt that Iran’s regime would protest spending Iranian assets to pay for the vaccines. But let’s evaluate the situation in comparison to 2015, when the JCPOA was signed. The regime is significantly more unpopular today. Iran needs the sanctions relieved, especially since the fragility of its economy is incomparably worse than the last time. The regime also understands that, with Joe Biden’s attack against Iran’s proxy a month after taking office, this U.S. president is more serious than Barack Obama about taking out Iran’s nuclear program with a strike.
To add to the dilemma, the Biden administration has indicated that it will have a much better relationship with Israel than did the Obama administration, so delegating such a strike to Israel is also a stronger possibility. The Israeli sabotage operation over the weekend has only increased such concerns for Iran. Bottom line: Iran is actually scared this time, and it also has a much weaker footing at home.
Taken together, all this means that, no matter the tough talk by Iran’s leaders, they are actually likely to make concessions.
The Biden administration should show the people of Iran that the United States is willing to pressure Iran’s leaders for the benefit of the Iranian people. Not a penny of Iran’s frozen assets should be released before Iranians are fully vaccinated.
Biden promised more diplomacy. Public diplomacy, after all, is still diplomacy.
It’s time to join the race to vaccinate Iran—and to win it.