Coronavirus: Israel should give Iran vaccines - opinion

A member of the Imam Khomeini Hospital medical personnel receives a dose of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19, in Tehran, Iran, earlier this month.

The 'Cyrus Mercy Mission' would mean putting hostilities aside to cooperate during this mutual health crisis.

The global coronavirus pandemic has been brutal, killing nearly 2.5 million people in a single year. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it’s been the worst of times for all of us, but some have managed the crisis better than others.
While the United States, thanks to the unprecedented success of Operation Warp Speed, has produced two highly-effective vaccines with a third on the way, Israel and Iran are truly a tale of two countries. Israel, a vibrant democracy, is conducting an impressive vaccination campaign to protect its population from COVID-19, while Iran, ruled by Islamic terrorists, has dreadfully failed the Iranian people. 
To date, Israel has carried out the most COVID-19 vaccine doses per capita in the world. 90% of Israelis over the age of 60 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – 49% of Israelis overall. And a third of Israel’s population has received two doses. In fact, Israel’s effective and widespread vaccination rollout is helping to inform the world how to defeat the dreaded virus. One of the findings reported by the country’s Health Ministry indicates that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine have proven about 99% effective in preventing hospitalization, serious disease, and death. Israeli infection rates are falling, and its schools, shops, hotels, and gyms are reopening. Life in the Jewish state is getting back to normal – so much so that Israel is now exploring venues to donate excess doses of the vaccines to less fortunate countries.
In contrast, life in the Islamic Republic of Iran is far from normal. Due to the regime’s reliance on commerce with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), flights between Iran and China continued even after the virus was identified, making Iran one of the most virulent hot spots on the planet but Tehran has done precious little to alleviate the suffering of the Iranian people. Last year, the Iranian Health Ministry rejected a 50-bed intensive care field hospital donated by international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders to treat COVID-19 patients in Isfahan. 
This January, Ayatollah Khamenei, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said that “import of [COVID-19] vaccines made in the US and UK are prohibited.” He later tweeted that the American and British vaccines that have so effectively been bringing down infection and death rates elsewhere are “completely untrustworthy. It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” In lockstep, 200 Iranian legislators followed by calling for the ban of US, UK, and French vaccines. One cleric from Qom, an early epicenter of the pandemic in Iran, went even further telling his followers, “Don’t go near those who have had the COVID vaccine. They have become homosexuals.” 
Even according to the government’s dubious statistics (which have reportedly undercounted actual numbers by over three times), COVID-19 has caused about 10 times as many deaths in Iran than Israel, with a case fatality rate of nearly 4% compared to Israel’s .07%. What vaccination rollout there is, has been delayed by internal squabbles and concerns about the safety of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. To date, only 10,000 Iranians have received the first dose – just .01% of the population. 
The malfeasant and venal incompetence of the regime in Tehran presents an opportunity to grow ties between the people of Iran and Israel facilitated by the United States. As we wrote recently, we envision peace between Iranians and Israelis under American leadership, codified through the signing of the Cyrus Accords to complement the historic Abraham Accords. A practical step toward such an agreement can start immediately with the offer of COVID-19 assistance. 
As the PRC prepares to start donating vaccines to build leverage and influence around the world, both Israel and the United States should look to do the same with the far more trusted vaccines at their disposal. When our vaccination programs are complete, getting this assistance to the people of Iran should be a top priority. The United States has two Mercy-class hospital ships, and one of them could be deployed to the Persian Gulf as a floating vaccination center, staffed by Israeli doctors and nurses and stocked with excess doses of American vaccines as they become available. Properly fitted, the ship could vaccinate thousands a day, bringing the Iranian people the immediate and remarkable benefits Israelis and Americans are beginning to see. Let’s call it the Cyrus Mercy Mission. 
Responsible governments have often found ways to put hostilities aside and cooperate in a mutual crisis. Acceptance of the Cyrus Mercy Mission could serve as a litmus test for the regime in Tehran that demonstrates if they are serious about participating in the global campaign to end the pandemic, and if they can prioritize the needs of their own people over their hatred of the United States and Israel. In fact, the regime’s non-interference with this humanitarian effort should be a mandatory stipulation for the resumption of any diplomacy related to their nuclear program. Given their dismal 42-year track record, of course our hopes cannot be high, but we can at least make the offer so Iranians can see for themselves they have friends who want to help them and offer them the same more peaceful and prosperous future that is dawning across the Middle East.  
Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and former deputy national security advisor for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs. Len Khodorkovsky is the former deputy assistant secretary of state for digital strategy and senior adviser to the US special representative for Iran.

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