A vaccination centre, a hospital, a pharmacy and finally a morgue. The first public visits by Iran’s new hardline 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, replacing centrist president Hassan Rouhani, there has been a huge rise in imports of vaccines. A regime that in January this year banned western jabs now welcomes them, and Raisi has led the push.
“When the president, like a commander, shows up in the frontline, then all officials realise that no excuses would be acceptable for any delay in importing vaccines,” said Mohammad Hassan Ghosian Moghaddam, a spokesman for the Iranian Red Crescent Society, which is the main conduit for vaccine imports. It buys principally from the Red Cross Society of China. “If we told the previous government we could import 1m doses, the answer was ‘let’s look into it over the next week’. Now, the answer is ‘Why 1m? Why not 10m?’”
Raisi’s election victory was marred by public wrath over engineered polls and the barring of many moderate candidates. With Iran’s centres of power now all in the control of hardline conservatives, Raisi and his cohort want to prove their ability to run the Islamic republic more efficiently than his predecessor.
Constant tensions between hardliners and reformists had made it difficult for Rouhani to make decisions, let alone import vaccines in large quantities. Hardliners had argued that accepting Western vaccines would make Iranians little more than laboratory rats and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself banned the import of all Western jabs.
Rouhani instead focused on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, under which Iran curbed its nuclear output in return for the lifting of international sanctions. The deal fell apart after the then-US president Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018.
In contrast, Raisi has so far refused to give any prominence to the nuclear talks in Vienna, which have been suspended since Iranian elections in June, focusing instead on vaccines. Last month, amid outrage on social media over the lack of jabs, the supreme leader urged authorities to “double efforts” and use “any possible way” to vaccinate people.
“The government will surely resume talks but it is also waiting to see the results of vaccination and their impact on the economic situation,” said one reformist analyst. “He [ Raisi] has rightly prioritised vaccination as we cannot sit at the negotiating table while people feel so miserable.”
First vice-president Mohammad Mokhber now convenes a committee on vaccination imports several times a week. “Before, the health ministry was alone, but now decisions are made in the vaccination committee and all obstacles are removed immediately in the same sessions,” said Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, head of Iran’s Food and Drug Administration. “Imports of vaccines have become number one priority for the government of Mr Raisi.”
The new measures mean Iran has managed to buy more than 30m doses over the past month alone, according to Shanehsaz. This compares with 19m in the preceding seven months. With 16.3 per cent of people already fully vaccinated, up from 3.3 per cent before Raisi took over, the government aims to have most of the 85m population jabbed by February.
The bulk of the vaccines are Sinopharm, with Oxford/AstraZeneca a distant second, followed by COVIran Barkat, the domestically produced shot. Permits have also been issued to private companies to import vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, Shanehsaz confirmed.
The about-turn has prompted anger at the high cost of the power struggle between reformists and hardliners. Daily deaths in Iran hit a record 709 on August 24 and the official death toll now stands at 117,182 though doctors say the real figure could be twice as high. Many people are horrified to realise that the number of daily deaths is “far higher” than during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, as Iran’s health minister admitted this month.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician and leading opposition voice, said this month that delay in imports caused “the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of our countrymen, and now putting those responsible on trial is the legal right of our citizens”.
“We surely would not have had this grave situation if there were unity in the political system earlier,” said Hossein Kermanpour, medical director of the emergency ward of Sina hospital, designated for coronavirus patients. “Now, vaccination can turn into the best tool for Raisi to gain popularity and let business go back to normal.”
For Zahra, a 44-year-old housewife, the new measures have come too late. “If I had been vaccinated, the Delta variant would not have made me feel on the verge of death,” she said. “How dirty is politics, really! So many people died and now that Raisi is in power people are being vaccinated.”