Raisi Government and Iran’s Covid-19 Policy Challenge

EPC | 08 Sep 2021

Controlling the Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as the biggest challenge for the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. He has stressed that his government’s priority is to end the pandemic and that his government would use its total capacity to contain the spread of the virus by providing the financial resources necessary to import large quantities of vaccines and accelerating the pace of vaccination. However, he has not succeeded so far as Iran remains among the region’s lowest-ranked countries in terms of vaccination rate.

The Epidemiological Situation

Raisi’s affirmation of the Covid-19 priority on his government’s agenda comes after a similar assertion by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who called the epidemic the first in the country’s priorities. Over a year ago, Khamenei refused to import US and British vaccines, stressing the need to produce them locally. The decision put the Iranian health system in a real crisis resulting in vaccination delays leading to the spread of the epidemic.

However, Khamenei recently stressed the need to import the vaccine from any available source as soon as possible. This came after the crisis worsened and efforts to produce a local vaccine failed. Moreover, the Russian side did not abide by its pledges to provide more than 60 million doses of vaccine until the end of the summer of 2021, announced by the Iranian Assistant Minister of Health. The ministry data indicates that Iran received only around one million doses. Some officials, primarily the Minister of Health in the Rouhani government, had highlighted the difficult conditions prevailing in the Iranian health system due to the fifth wave of the spread of the virus. They indicated the possibility of the health system’s collapse and demanded steps, including restricting movement, imposing a comprehensive ban for two weeks, and working on importing the vaccine.

While the Covid-19 spread did not decline since it entered Iran, in February 2020, the new Iranian year and the fifth Iranian month, in particular, witnessed the largest wave in terms of the number of infections and victims over the past 17 months.

The first month of the Iranian year (March-21 to April 21, 2021) witnessed nearly 500,662 infections, and 5,876 deaths from coronavirus, making 16,150 cases and 190 deaths every day). The numbers increased to 528,955 infections and 10,669 deaths in the second month, an average of 17,063 infections and 344 deaths per day. The third month witnessed a decline, recording 289,738 infections (an average of 9,346 daily), and 4,907 deaths (an average of 158 deaths per day). In the fourth month, infection cases increased to more than half a million again, reaching 518,220 cases (16,717 daily), while the number of deaths decreased to 4,692 cases (an average of 151 deaths per day).

In the fifth month, infections reached their peak, exceeding one million cases for the first time since the beginning of the epidemic. The country registered 1,053,274 cases of infections (an average of 33,976 daily), while deaths during that month reached 13,975 deaths (an average of 451 deaths per day).

The numbers at the end of the fifth month reached 4,677,114 and 102,038 deaths. It was discovered that almost 2,390,187 cases were infected during the first five months of the Iranian year. This means that more than half (51 percent) of people have been infected in the last five months. In terms of deaths, the share of the five months was 33.8 percent, with 34,513 out of 102,038 deaths.

During the fifth month of the Iranian year, daily infections exceeded the 50,000 marks, with 709 deaths daily, accounting for nearly 22.5 percent of the total infections (compared to 77.5 percent for the remaining 16 months), while the death cases were nearly 13.7 percent. Overall, Iran faces an unprecedented wave of a virus outbreak that does not seem to be declining. Even as infections and deaths during the first four days of the sixth month indicate an increase in the rate compared to the fifth month, cases of infection reached a daily rate of 39,005 infections. The death toll was registered at 670 every day. There is a possibility that the virus’s spread will peak during the sixth Iranian month. Official figures indicate that the infection rate during it is 16 times the infection rate of August 2020.

These figures seem remarkable as they place Iran among the list of countries most affected by the coronavirus pandemic during the last month. However, data also indicate that the official figures announced by the Iranian Ministry of Health do not reflect reality. Sources in the government’s coronavirus task force confirmed that the actual number of victims exceeds the official figures by 2.5 times. Both Tasnim Agency and Javan newspaper, both close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), indicated that the real number of victims of the virus, based on the Personal Status Department data documents, is close to 250,000.

This grim reality places the task of combating the virus at the top Raisi government’s agenda. This could even be at the expense of pending issues, such as economic deterioration, resolving disputes with the international community, and lifting sanctions.

A Conservative Government

Ebrahim Raisi announced that he would use the government’s total capacity to tackle the pandemic. He said he would also use the capabilities of other sovereign institutions, which seem to be in harmony with him, unlike the case with the Rouhani government. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said that the sovereign institutions are trying to develop a plan to contain the crisis within three months. He stressed the Parliament’s readiness to put all its powers at the government’s disposal to handle the crisis, especially budget allocation and shifting its sections to address the pandemic. The government regarding the coronavirus crisis can be summarized in the following points:

  • The press affiliated with the conservative movement started by ensuring transparency in the number of infections and deaths. A large part of the escalating numbers can be attributed to the desire to bypass the Rouhani government’s secrecy. The attempts of the conservative press to disclose the actual number, exceeding announced official figures, can be seen in the same context. However, this transparency was part of the attempts to discredit the Rouhani government and emphasize the dilapidated condition that the moderate government left for the conservative government. The behavior of the conservative press makes it clear that it does not intend to publish accurate information about the attempts to obtain the vaccine and the vaccination campaign.
  • A comprehensive quarantine did not seem possible at the beginning of the Raisi government’s term. However, the option to postpone studies in schools for several months remains possible. The Rouhani government, on the other hand, previously confirmed its intention to open schools as scheduled at the end of September 2021, setting a plan for a massive vaccination campaign for teachers that expires before the end of September 2021. Raisi announced that the government does not intend to reopen schools until it can ensure appropriate health conditions. Statistics reveal that the vaccination campaign for education staff has faltered due to the low stockpile of vaccines and changing priorities. The government’s intentions of distance learning will likely be implemented during the fall of 2021.
  • The economic effects of the crisis on Iranian society are still visible. The Ministry of Labor has confirmed that the extreme poverty rate increased by nearly 38 percent within one year, bringing nearly 33 percent of Iranian society under the extreme poverty line. The head of the Chamber of Commerce also announced that the demand for purchasing foodstuff decreased between 30 and 35 percent in the first five months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. The Customs Authority said that the suspension of imported goods at customs due to the spread of the virus added nearly 30 percent to their prices in the markets. The Parliament Speaker indicated preparations to change the general budget items in support of programs that the government intends to implement to address the economic crisis. The situation does not indicate the government’s intention to expand social support programs similar to the previous government. This seems natural in light of the economic crisis experienced by the government. President Raisi referred to this during his inauguration ceremony, stressing an expected budget deficit of 450,000 billion tomans (between 35 and 45 percent of the total budget, according to government sources) that would increase further due to the decline in government revenues from oil exports. Official figures confirm that oil sales were less than 10 percent of what the budget projected. As confirmed by the Ministry of Economy, the sale of securities recorded a deficit of nearly 85 percent in the first five months. It is evident that the government, which started by suspending administrative life for one week, does not intend to impose more restrictions, such as comprehensive quarantine and the freezing of administrative and economic activities, as this will have enormous economic costs.
  • A massive vaccination campaign will be the main focus of the Raisi government’s plan. After Khamenei opened the door to importing various types of vaccines, the Iranian regime’s plan changed from domestic production to imports. The President stressed that his government is ready to allocate all the financial resources needed to import vaccines on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health confirmed that it is trying to import several vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna. The Assistant Minister of Health stated that the government planned to import 120 million doses of the vaccine within three months and allocated the necessary sources for it, stressing that nearly 40 million doses will be imported by the end of the summer of 2021, i.e., within three weeks. The Deputy Chairman of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce Nasser Riahi underlined that the Chamber of Commerce conducted successful negotiations to obtain 40 million doses of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, to be imported within three months. Meanwhile, data indicates a faltering vaccination campaign. Official sources confirm that nearly 17.7 million people received the first dose, including nearly 7.15 million people who received both doses, so that the overall vaccination volume is at 8 percent so far. Official figures indicate that the total vaccine imports so far amounted to 27 million doses, including 20.1 million doses from China (74 percent of the total imported vaccine). The Customs Authority has not registered the import of any shipment of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines so far.
  • The Chairman of the government’s Anti-Coronavirus Committee confirmed that Iran’s stockpile of vaccines is insufficient for more than five days. This seems close to reality considering the volume of imports and vaccination so far. Hence, the success of vaccination efforts in tackling the pandemic depends on the doubling vaccination rate depending on the speed of vaccine imports.
  • Figures show that China was the primary source of vaccine imports, and the government will continue to rely on its eastern ally to obtain the necessary quantities of the vaccine. China has supplied more than 15 million vaccine doses since Ebrahim Raisi took power on August 3, 2021. This is nearly 55 percent of the total imported vaccine so far. During a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, the Iranian President called on Beijing to speed up providing Iran with the vaccine to tackle the pandemic. The Assistant Minister of Health asserted that the agreement between Iran and the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulates Iran’s right to import 16.8 million doses of the vaccine. However, only 2.2 million doses have been imported so far, and the import of larger quantities of the vaccine remains just a slogan until now.

Scenarios

Iran’s Covid-19 crisis has brought the country’s political, economic, and social scene under the spotlight. Today, besides the challenges of the relationship with the international community, it constitutes the most important feature of the Iranian public scene, at the political level and on the streets. Dealing with this issue (and the success or failure therein) will clearly impact the Raisi government’s popularity. It will also determine the reasons behind the government’s positions on other fronts, including foreign policy and the economy. The government is likely to face the following scenarios:

Scenario 1 – A quick solution to the crisis with Chinese help: This scenario assumes that the government will successfully address the Covid-19 crisis quickly and contain the epidemic through a rapid vaccination program extending for 3-4 months without bearing more economic burdens and compromising with its openness to the global community. The government and sovereign institutions are betting on this scenario, evident in the government’s efforts to obtain 120 million doses of the vaccine until the fall of 2021. China is assumed to cover Iran’s needs for the vaccine intensively. While China has so far shown a response in terms of position and action and has provided Iran within three weeks with more vaccine volumes than the total, it provided during 2020, the issue of its continuation in supplies remains subject to time. It also remains as a Chinese pressure mechanism on Iran to determine its position on several issues. In conclusion, close Chinese cooperation in this field will have repercussions on Iran’s integration with China.

Scenario 2 – The crisis pushes Iran to reconcile with the international community: Iran’s need for a vaccine and financial resources to combat the repercussions of the economic crisis are likely to push the regime toward openness to the international community and to be an incentive to start more serious negotiations with Western parties in the coming months. This possibility seems weak, but it remains plausible if China’s failure to comply with its commitments to supply Iran with the vaccine is considered, or if Chinese and Russian pressures are exerted on Iran to accept an effective return to the negotiations using the vaccine card.

Scenario 3 – The government’s failure to address the crisis: This scenario assumes that the Raisi government will not be able to contain the epidemic and address the crisis due to several reasons, including the lack of adequate vaccine supplies, the exacerbation of the health crisis, and the neglect of the economic repercussions of the crisis. This means that crisis management will remain at the level of slogans aimed at pacifying society. One of the repercussions of this scenario is that Iran will witness more protests. Such a situation may allow the government to exercise more social and political repression or look for diplomatic options to ease social pressure. The greatest possibility, which does not seem plausible so far, is that this movement would radically change the features of Iran’s political system. The reality on the ground suggests that the Covid-19 crisis has reached a critical juncture in Iran. From health crises it has turned into economic, social, and political crises. At the geopolitical level, the data suggest that the crisis has worked, at least so far, to strengthen the eastern orientation in Iranian policy and consolidate a greater integration with China.

Conclusions

Hassan Rouhani’s government failed to manage the coronavirus crisis, exhausting its health and economic infrastructure. It was one of the main reasons behind the decline in the previous government’s popularity as the conservative movement directed its stinging criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis. Considering the escalation of the crisis in the past five months and the possibility that it will continue at this pace, it was clear that the Raisi government is heading toward placing it as a top priority. His government is trying to prove effectiveness in an area in which the previous government failed.

Unlike other challenges facing the government, linked to the Iranian regime’s crisis with the international community, the Covid-19 crisis is a largely domestic issue. If the government succeeds in addressing this issue, its image will improve at the beginning of its term without major repercussions related to its relations with the international community.

Available data and the statements of government officials show that the Raisi government is trying to contain the health component of the crisis without looking at the economic aspect. The implication is that the government does not have a clear plan to contain it, even at the health infrastructure level. For them, comprehensive quarantine, suspending administrative and social life for several days remain an unthinkable option as they carry economic burdens that will likely be unbearable for the exhausted Iranian economy.

Perhaps the most critical step that the government is trying to implement is accelerating the pace of vaccination. Authorities have demonstrated focus on this objective as the most important step to contain the epidemic, besides other precautionary steps such as suspending schools during the fall of 2021. While more than one government agency has emphasized the attempt to obtain vaccines from various sources, what can be deduced from the government’s positions, supported by what is happening on the ground, is a clear dependence on China as a major source of the vaccine. The data do not show real engagement with the Western countries to procure vaccines, except discussions for the COVAX Scheme (the global access to Covid-19 vaccine initiative) with nearly 16.8 million doses. According to official sources, the quantities imported during the first three weeks of the new government’s term were all Chinese vaccines, at an average of 700,000 doses per day.

The new government appears to be facing a difficult task, which may put its popularity on the line. Opinion polls indicate the crisis of the street’s mistrust of the government’s policies in managing the Covid-19 crisis. An opinion poll conducted by the Iranian Ministry of Culture at the beginning of August 2021 indicated that nearly 45 percent of the street did not trust the government’s policies in managing the crisis, compared to a trust rate of only 21.2 percent. Another government institution poll, conducted at the beginning of August 2021, showed that only nearly 14 percent of the Iranian people expect to receive the vaccine until the end of the summer of 2021, compared to 11 percent who see the possibility of receiving it until the end of autumn 2021. Another 16 percent believe they will get it before the end of the Iranian year in March 2022. The results indicate that 26.3 percent of participants do not see any hopes of receiving the vaccine at all.

In sum, the coronavirus crisis and its repercussions are a significant test of effectiveness for the new Iranian government, which will impact its popularity in the streets. The government is trying to reduce the crisis so far to its health aspect. It is betting on addressing this as a starting point to addressing other repercussions, especially at the economic level. The Raisi government heavily depends on China to contain the health aspect of the crisis, which has promised every effort to support the government, which appears closer to the Chinese authorities than its moderate predecessor.

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