Iran’s Raisi is focused on vaccines, not nuclear talks

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Iran updates

A vaccination center, a hospital, a pharmacy and finally a morgue. The first public visits by the new hard-line Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi have made clear his top priority – accelerating imports of Covid-19 vaccines into a country hard hit by the pandemic.

Since the 60-year-old cleric was inaugurated last month and replaced centrist President Hassan Rouhani, vaccine imports have risen dramatically. They are now welcomed by a regime that banned Western strikes in January this year, and Raisi has led the push.

“When the president shows up on the front lines like a commander, all officials realize that excuses are unacceptable for delays in importing vaccines,” said Mohammad Hassan Ghosian Moghaddam, a spokesman for Iran’s Red Crescent Society’s main vaccine import channel. It mainly buys from the Red Cross Society of China. “When we told the previous government that we could import 1 million cans, the answer was ‘let’s look into this next week.’ The answer is, “Why 1m? Why not 10m? ‘”

Raisi’s election victory was marred by public anger over rigged polls and the exclusion of many moderate candidates. With Iran’s centers of power now under the control of tough conservatives, Raisi and his cohort want to demonstrate their ability to run the Islamic Republic more efficiently than his predecessor.

President Ebrahim Raisi visits a Covid vaccination center in Tehran © Iranian Presidium via AP

Constant tensions between hardliners and reformists had made it difficult for Rouhani to make decisions, let alone import large quantities of vaccines. Hardliners had argued that adopting western vaccines would make Iranians little more than laboratory rats, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself banned all western jabs from being imported.

Rouhani instead focused on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, after which Iran curbs nuclear production in return for lifting international sanctions. The deal failed after then US President Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018.

In contrast, Raisi has so far refused to focus on the nuclear talks in Vienna, which have been suspended since the Iranian elections in June, and instead concentrated on vaccines. Last month, amid social media outrage over the lack of vaccinations, the top leader urged authorities to “redouble efforts” and use “every possible means” to vaccinate people.

“The government will certainly resume talks, but it is also waiting for the results of the vaccination and its impact on the economic situation,” said a reformist analyst. “He [ Raisi] rightly made vaccinations a priority because we can’t sit at the negotiating table while people are feeling so miserable. “

The first Vice President Mohammad Mokhber now convenes a committee for vaccine imports several times a week. “The Ministry of Health used to be alone, but now decisions are made in the vaccination committee and all obstacles are immediately removed in the same meetings,” said Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, head of the Iranian Food and Drug Administration. “Imports of vaccines are a top priority for Mr. Raisi’s government.”

The new measures mean Iran managed to buy more than 30 million cans in the past month alone, Shanehsaz said. Compared to 19 million in the previous seven months. With 16.3 percent of people fully vaccinated, up from 3.3 percent before Raisi took office, the government plans to have the majority of its 85 million residents vaccinated by February.

The bulk of the vaccines are Sinopharm, second only to Oxford / AstraZeneca, followed by COVIran Barkat, the domestically manufactured vaccine. Licenses to import vaccines from BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have also been granted to private companies, Shanehsaz confirmed.

The turnaround has sparked anger over the high cost of the power struggle between reformists and hardliners. Daily deaths in Iran hit a record of 709 on Aug. 24 and the official death toll now stands at 117,182, although doctors say the real number could be twice that. Many people are horrified to find that the number of deaths every day is “far higher” than during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, as the Iranian health minister admitted this month.

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician and opposition leader, said earlier this month that the delay in imports has “caused the avoidable death of tens of thousands of our compatriots, and now it is the legal right of our citizens to bring those responsible to justice”.

“We would certainly not have had this serious situation if there had been a unit in the political system earlier,” said Hossein Kermanpour, medical director of the Sina Hospital emergency department, which is intended for coronavirus patients. “Now vaccination can become the best tool for Raisi to gain popularity and get business back to normal.”

For Zahra, a 44-year-old housewife, the new measures come too late. “If I had been vaccinated, I would not have felt on the verge of death with the Delta variant,” she said. “How dirty is politics really! So many people have died and now that Raisi is in power, people are being vaccinated. “


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