Iran's Raisi says tackling Covid, reviving economy priorities
Iran's ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi said Saturday his government will prioritise tackling Covid and accelerating vaccinations ahead of an economic revival, as he defended his cabinet choices before parliament.
The conservative-dominated parliament began debating the male-only, largely conservative lineup, ahead of a vote of confidence expected by Wednesday.
"The government's first priority is controlling the coronavirus, improving the health situation and widespread vaccination," Raisi said.
"The economy and the livelihood situation is the second" priority, he added, noting that his lineup is meant 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 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.
Battling the Middle East's deadliest Covid outbreak, the country launched a vaccination drive in February but it has progressed slower than authorities had hoped.
Knowledge and experience
Choked by US sanctions that have made it difficult to transfer money abroad, Iran says it has struggled to import vaccines.
Raisi has tapped 63-year-old optometrist Bahram Eynollahi as his health minister.
He defended his pick as "a figure who can rally forces in the fight against coronavirus".
Eynollahi was named by local media as a signatory of a January open letter that warned former president Hassan Rouhani against importing vaccines made by the United States, 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 Friday.
The president also on Saturday defended his foreign ministry pick, the conservative Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, as a "well-known" figure with the required "knowledge and experience".
He is seen by local media as an establishment figure with close ties to Iran's regional allies.
Raisi on Saturday said his foreign policy will expand "neighbourly ties" and prioritise the economy.
Iran and world powers are trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, which was torpedoed by the administration of former US president Donald Trump, who withdrew and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
Six rounds of nuclear talks were held in Vienna between April and June in an attempt to revive the accord. The last round concluded on June 20, with no date set for another.
Raisi made no mention of the nuclear talks or neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban are consolidating power after seizing Kabul nearly a week ago.