Iran's President Raisi to prioritise fighting Covid-19 over economic revival

Iran's economy, largely dependent on oil revenues, has been hit hard by the pandemic and US sanctions

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday his government will prioritise tackling Covid-19 and accelerating vaccinations ahead of an economic revival, as he defended his Cabinet choices before Parliament.

The conservative-dominated Parliament began debating the entirely male, largely conservative line-up in the morning, ahead of a vote of confidence on nominees expected later this week.

Unlike his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, Mr Raisi is closely aligned to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The government's first priority is controlling the coronavirus, improving the health situation and widespread vaccination,” Mr Raisi said.

“The economy and the livelihood situation is the second [priority]," he added, saying that his line-up is intended to bring about “justice and progress".

Some lawmakers during Saturday's session criticised the president for a failure thus far of his economic team to present policy plans, but Mr Raisi said a detailed strategy will be released "soon".

Since late June, Iran has seen what officials have called a “fifth wave” of Covid-19 infections, the country's worst yet, which they have largely blamed on the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Daily infections and deaths have hit record highs several times this month, raising total cases since the pandemic started to over 4.5 million and fatalities to more than 100,000.

Iran, battling the Middle East's deadliest Covid outbreak, launched a vaccination drive in February but it has progressed slower than authorities had hoped.

Choked by US sanctions that have made it difficult to transfer money abroad, Iran says it has struggled to import vaccines.

However, the country has received more than five million doses through the international Covax scheme that provides vaccines to poor countries. Around four million of those shots are made by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca.

Iran is also producing its own Covid-19 vaccines.

Mr Raisi has lined up optometrist Bahram Eynollahi, 63, as his health minister.

He defended his pick as “a figure who can rally forces in the fight against coronavirus".

Mr Eynollahi was named by local media as a signatory to an open letter in January that warned Mr Rouhani, president at the time, against importing vaccines made by the US, Britain and France, as they may cause “unknown and irreversible complications".

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had in the same month banned the use of vaccines made by the US and Britain, calling them “completely untrustworthy".

More than 16.3 million people out of the country's 83 million inhabitants have been given a first vaccine dose, but only 5.4 million have received the second, the health ministry said on Friday.

Updated: August 21st 2021, 2:26 PM