Foreign Policy:

There are many reasons why Iran has become the Middle East’s flaming epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. They include the government trying to hide the outbreak; insufficient testing capacity; refusal to cordon off cities and Shiite shrines; superstition, politicization, and propaganda blaming Iran’s usual enemies; and the lack of seriousness in dealing with the crisis.Bahram Parsaei, a member of Iran’s parliament, singled out Mahan Air as a prime suspect behind the country’s devastating outbreak.

All these factors undoubtedly play a role, but there is another, far less public suspect for bringing the disease to Iran and worsening its spread among the population: a private Iranian airline tied to the regime’s ideological army and sanctioned by the United States, which continued uninterrupted flights to and from China, including Wuhan, many weeks after the epidemic had already broken out. Bahram Parsaei, a member of Iran’s parliament, recently singled out Mahan Air and Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization as the prime suspects behind the country’s devastating outbreak.

What has made the suspicions worse are contradictory statements and misinformation coming from officials and airline executives. On Jan. 31, the Iranian government announced the suspension of all flights to and from China. But arrival and departure information furnished by Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, as well as by Chinese airports, showed that flights by Mahan Air between both countries continued for another full week—including one direct evacuation flight from Wuhan, ground zero for the virus. Other data showed flights continuing into March.

The airline, while privately owned, has links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force, an intelligence and special operations unit that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other governments. Mahan Air has been sanctioned by Washington for helping the IRGC ferry arms and personnel in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria’s brutal civil war. In a tweet on Feb. 2, China’s ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, noted that Mahan Air CEO Hamid Arabnejad said he wished to continue cooperating with China. Two days later, the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency criticized these ongoing flights and not for the first time. In a press release, Mahan Air claimed it ended all emergency repatriation flights from Wuhan and elsewhere by Feb. 5.

Yet even after this date, Mahan Air continued to ply the routes between Tehran and four major Chinese cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen—at least 55 times by Feb. 23, according to a tally by the U.S.-sponsored Radio Farda based on Flightradar24 data. Even on March 4, two weeks after the government announced Iran’s first two official deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, Mahan Air was still flying to Beijing and Shanghai and had just resumed direct flights to Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Mahan Air continued to misinform about its flights. Around Feb. 20, the airline claimed it had in recent days flown only cargo flights providing humanitarian assistance to China, while all passenger flights had been grounded. But the flight tracker data shows passenger flights, not cargo. The flight data seems more trustworthy: Given Iran’s severe shortages of face masks, sanitizer, medicine, and medical equipment—partly a result of U.S. sanctions—it strains the imagination to believe that the country was scrambling dozens of planeloads of health assistance to China at a time when its own coronavirus outbreak was rapidly worsening.

Iranian authorities had been quashing reports of the outbreak. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claims Feb. 19 as the date the government first realized the virus had arrived in Iran, after the first two deaths reported in Qom that day. But signs had been abundantly in evidence long before. Furthermore, a government document dated Feb. 19 seems to acknowledge cases in Qom as of Jan. 31. Yet precautionary measures were delayed until after the Feb. 21 parliamentary elections.

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