TEHRAN -- In a drastic 180-degree mandate change, Iran's leader Ali Khamenei on Wednesday (August 11) ordered officials to provide all Iranian citizens with COVID-19 vaccines "in any possible way".
Although Khamenei did not explicitly say it, this new policy means the import of vaccines manufactured in western countries.
Following Khamenei's reversal, new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi directed the foreign ministry to pursue the necessary measures for importing vaccines.
On Thursday, Kianoush Jahanpour, Iran's Food and Drug Administration spokesperson, said that "if possible", Iran will attempt to import Moderna and Pfizer vaccines as well.
This follows the supreme leader's January ban on the import of "western vaccines", namely American, British and French vaccines, and Tehran's refusal of the US offer of help for COVID-19 test kits and other medical equipment and medicine.
Khamenei justified his ban with the conspiracy theory that the United States and the United Kingdom could not be trusted and they might intend to test their newly developed vaccines on Iranians.
Iran tried to import Russian and Chinese vaccines later, but those countries have failed to deliver on their promises.
At the time the country's leader ordered the ban, thousands of Iranians were suffering from COVID-19 in intensive care units (ICUs), regular hospital wards or at home, and thousands more had already died of the virus.
Yet this new course may be a bit too late as Iran is battling a fifth wave of the virus, the deadliest so far with more than 500 deaths a day.
Iran's health ministry announced on Monday that 588 people had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, a record since the pandemic hit the country in February 2020.
Iranian officials have estimated over 95,000 people have died in the country due to complications from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, however newly published investigative reports estimate the number to be well more than 200,000.
A health official who spoke to IRNA on condition of anonymity said, "We may be looking at treating patients in hospital parking garages soon."
Officials shift blame
Following Khamenei's order, Ali-Reza Zali, chairman of Iran's COVID-Combatting Headquarters, said the health ministry stopped the import of some six million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in April for "unknown reasons".
Zali's remarks are ironic, as Khamenei's ban on importing western vaccines was very much in place at the time.
However, in light of the leader's new order, plenty of scapegoating and diversion has started, most of which includes blaming the previous administration -- former president Hassan Rouhani's.
In a Wednesday (August 11) interview, Zali stated that the government did not purchase vaccines when it should have under the pretext of them being too expensive, but the expenses of treating COVID-19 patients have surpassed those of potential vaccine purchases.
Zali said that Iran spent €720 million ($830 million) on remdesivir instead of buying vaccines.
He rejected the argument that US sanctions did not allow Iran to purchase and import vaccines. "How come we pay triple for importing oil industry equipment but could not bring vaccines?" he asked.
According to Zali, Iranian officials asked international health officials to praise Iran's health system and its ways of handling the pandemic.
"We continually concealed true statistics from international health organisations," he added.
Mohammad-Reza Zafarghandi, chairman of Iran's Medical Council, has stated that the number of citizens who take COVID-19 tests is declining every day.
This, in and of itself, indicates that the real number of sick people is evidently higher than what is being announced amid the fifth wave of the virus.
The Islamic Republic has doctored COVID-19 numbers from the beginning, after it denied its spread in the country for a full month following the start of the outbreak.
Currently, even in major Iranian cities, there is a severe shortage of hospital beds, as well as all medication and medical equipment, down to simple intravenous (IV) hook-ups.
Photos and videos circulating on social media show patients lying on the floor of hospital hallways or in courtyards.
Medical staff, nurses in particular, have repeatedly complained about being overworked and under extreme mental and physical pressure.
Mohammad Sharifi-Moghaddam, Iran's Nurses Association secretary-general, said that hospitals across the country are taking care of three times the regular number of patients and all ICUs are entirely full.
Daily death toll to rise
Iran's Tasnim News, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has reported that three individuals die of COVID-19 complications every minute, and public health observers expect the daily death toll to reach 800.
Early on in the pandemic, Khamenei ordered the IRGC, which is widely blamed for bungling the crisis and for prioritising politics over public health, to take charge.
Currently, the Iranian COVIran Barekat, the British-Swedish AstraZeneca, the Chinese Sinopharm, and the Russian Sputnik vaccines are offered to citizens in Iran. Many Iranians get the Chinese or Russian jabs reluctantly and out of desperation.
Iran has now vaccinated more than 12.5 million people with one dose and only about 3.5 million with two.
The virus's Delta variant has broken all previous records of COVID-19 spread in Iran, with the health ministry showing 42,541 new positive cases in the 24-hour period between August 10 and 11.
Khamenei's total change of mind is a clear indication of how desperate the regime is amid financial woes that have worsened over the past year and the government's refusal or reluctance to shut down all businesses, and subsidise or offer financial aid to citizens in need.
Moreover, with the holy month of Muharram starting, authorities have not given sufficient guidance or issued bans on gatherings and Shia mourning ceremonies.
Still, there is no sign of an apology for the six-month lapse in providing vaccines to the public, nor an explanation to coronavirus survivors and Iranians who have lost their loved ones to the virus.