Iranian President Raisi faces fifth wave of pandemic as economic pressures and worker opposition increase
By far the country most affected by Covid-19 in the Middle East, Iran has struggled for weeks with a fifth wave of infections, the strongest to date. Daily deaths and cases are rising amid criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic on social media.
According to the latest official figures, more than 12,000 people, including children, have died from Covid-19 in the past two weeks, overwhelming Iran’s dilapidated public health services. This brings the total death toll to over 110,000, although the state Shargh The daily said that “experts believed the real figure was 2.5 times higher.”
Some 7,689 people are in serious condition and are being treated in intensive care units, while more than 600 people die every day, including members of Iran’s ruling circle. Last week, local media reported that Hassan Firouzabadi, the head of the Iranian armed forces until 2016 and then military adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had died of coronavirus at the age of 70.
Hospitals are so overcrowded that patients line up on the floors and the most desperate wait in the streets. Life-saving drugs are scarce.
US sanctions against Iran targeting its oil exports, which suffered a catastrophic loss of $ 100 billion in revenue, and its access to the US-dominated international banking system, have ravaged the country’s healthcare system, denying him access to pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
At the same time, the pro-business Iranian clerical regime, seeking to place the full burden of the economic crisis caused by the sanctions and the pandemic on the working class and poor farmers to protect the country’s corrupt financial elite, has played a crucial role in allowing the coronavirus to sweep the population.
Presiding over his first cabinet meeting, President Ebrahim Raisi, a member of the “hard” or “majority” faction around Khamenei, was forced to admit the scale of the crisis facing workers and their families. He said Iran was “seriously behind” in many areas and pledged to improve its economy and the Covid response, saying the current situation “does not suit” the Islamic Republic.
However, he did not announce any measures to reduce the transmission of the disease other than “advising” people to wear masks and maintain social distancing. Raisi lifted a six-day closure and travel ban last month, even as cases rose.
The pandemic is virtually invisible in the country’s heavily censored media, with the president calling for all public debate on the pandemic to focus on “creating maximum hope and refraining from creating fear and anxiety among the population. “. Iranian authorities last month arrested six prominent lawyers and human rights activists who allegedly prepared a complaint against the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. While one of them was released the next day, the others were detained.
A health official admitted the government spent more than $ 800 million on a drug with a poor track record in treating symptoms of the disease. That money could have been used to buy more than 160 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, more than enough to immunize every Iranian adult. Instead, Khamenei banned the purchase of American and British vaccines in January, saying the West would use them to experiment on Iranians.
As a result, the Iranian vaccination program has been slow to start. Although Khamenei and government officials have insisted that Iran is developing its own “safe and effective” vaccines and that most of the population will be vaccinated by mid-summer, issues with its development have left the country dependent on importing vaccines from Russia and China. which are only recently available. According to the Health Ministry, only 9.5 million of Iran’s 85 million people received their second dose of a vaccine and just under 19.5 million Iranians received their first.
Last week, 10 leading Iranian activists, including Narges Mohammadi and Mohammad Nourizad, both political prisoners, and renowned filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, wrote to Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. man, and other human rights organizations. They called for urgent action on the Covid crisis in Iran, including demanding that the Iranian government import vaccines.
They said: “We will face terrifying mass deaths in Iran if enough vaccines are not imported to immunize everyone in the country,” blaming Khamenei’s vaccine ban, lack of other vaccines and the promotion by the government of large religious gatherings which acted as super-spreaders, while stressing that one should not rely on official figures.
Iran’s currency has fallen to almost a tenth of its value since 2017, forcing the government to print money to make up for its loss of foreign income. Inflation is approaching 50 percent, eroding workers’ wages. Government officials have admitted that up to 60 percent of Iranians have fallen below the poverty line, far more than the 30 percent reported in official statistics, and are unable to afford many food items. New data shows that the prices of seven food items, including cooking oil, drinks, mushrooms, tomatoes, butter and carrots, rose by more than 100% in July compared to last year , along with an increase in the cost of drugs.
Real estate prices also rose after people bought properties to protect their savings, leading to higher rents amid a massive shortage of affordable housing as workers moved out of rural areas affected by the crisis. drought for cities.
Speaking on state television, President Raisi insisted he would keep his campaign pledge to build one million affordable homes for sale per year during his tenure. But the scale of the task was revealed in Iranian business media, which reported it would cost $ 15 billion a year, more than last year’s oil export revenues. Reports pointed out that at $ 200 per square meter, even a 50 square meter apartment would cost $ 10,000, beyond the reach of most workers. Others asked how electricity and water would be supplied to new homes given existing electricity and water shortages.
The strikes and protests that calmed down with the onset of the pandemic have now started to reappear, including the ongoing strike by contract workers in the state petrochemical industry and protests over the shortage of electricity and electricity. water.
On Sunday, hundreds of teachers gathered in front of the parliament and the budget and planning building in Tehran to protest against the cancellation of a salary increase, accepted by the former Rouhani administration. They chanted: “With masters and doctorates, we get a small salary. Their salaries, around $ 120 a month, are well below the minimum of $ 400 needed to avoid poverty. Masoud Mirkazemi, the new head of the Budget and Planning Organization, dismissed the salary increase as unaffordable and criticized the previous administration for making such a commitment to teachers.
The regime came under new criticism when video clips leaked from security cameras in Evin Prison in Tehran, where many political prisoners are held, revealed the extent of physical abuse suffered by detainees. . According to the site of Iran International, a clip shows police attacking a handcuffed prisoner as others watch. Another shows several people trying to prevent the suicide of a fellow inmate and a third shows inmates carrying another prisoner, presumably to the clinic, without the help of guards.
While all political factions would like to see the lifting of US sanctions and the relaunch of the nuclear deal with the great powers – as a way out of the economic, social and political crisis facing the regime – it is increasingly becoming more unlikely that the United States will agree to lift all sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration in 2018, as well as others imposed later. While Raisi expressed his support for the Vienna talks to lift the sanctions, he said he would not agree to negotiate under pressure, a reference to demands by the United States and its European allies not to delay further negotiations. talks.
Tehran hopes to use the collapse of Washington’s puppet regime in Afghanistan – although relations with the Taliban are not good – to improve its negotiating position and is in no rush to resume talks, which broke off in June in the awaiting the inauguration of Raisi.
Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said it was important for Iran to maintain symmetrical relations, implying that it was seeking to strengthen relations with Iran’s neighbors and countries of the region, and underlined the importance of Asia to the new administration, including strengthening ties. with Russia and China, in accordance with Tehran’s policy of “looking east”.