How an Iranian Airline Tied to Terrorism Likely Spread the Virus (and Lied About It)
Why is Iran the flaming epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East? One of the primary suspects is Mahan Air.
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.
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.
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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.
As the situation worsened in Iran, Mahan Air continued to fly to and from China, including eight planeloads of emergency medical equipment from China. According to Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami, Mahan Air also flew three flights to repatriate Iranians, including one from Wuhan to bring back Iranian students.
Given shortages of test kits and other equipment in Iran, it is highly unlikely that aviation and health authorities were able to ensure proper disinfection and diagnosis on arrival. Even today, the World Health Organization suspects Iran has diagnosed only a fraction of the true number of cases.
Mahan Air is also suspected to have flown Chinese nationals on those supposed cargo flights. Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi recently said epidemiological studies showed that COVID-19’s origins in Qom—Iran’s equivalent of Wuhan—were “clearly and specifically” linked to Chinese workers and university students. (He was presumably referring to seminary students at Qom’s Al-Mustafa International University, a center of Shiite indoctrination with some 40,000 foreign students.) The suspected link between Mahan Air flights and the start of the outbreak in Qom has gained traction among some Iranians; some on social media even claimed that Iranians had, at Qom airport, attacked a Mahan Air aircraft with stones.
The Mahan Air affair is symptomatic of Iran’s outsized dependency on—and need to please—China, which has only grown since the start of the crisis. The pandemic has isolated Iran in a way that military, diplomatic, and economic pressure has not been able to. Even though bilateral trade dropped by over a third between 2018 and 2019, and Iran’s oil exports to China dwindled by over 82 percent between April and November 2019, China remains Iran’s single most important trade partner and customer for its oil and gas. According to another deputy health minister, Reza Malekzadeh, among the reasons for ongoing flights to China were bilateral economic relations. Beijing, along with Russia, also remains Iran’s most important patron and protector, especially on the United Nations Security Council.
Rouhani has called for Iranians to trust his government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. Yet trust between the population and its leaders has become dangerously thin, giving the government all the more reason to release Mahan Air’s flight manifest. Otherwise, continued speculation in Iran over the pandemic’s origins risks spilling over into open antagonism toward everything Chinese, including thousands of workers, traders, and students in Iran. Such public resentment would put Tehran in an even more difficult position with Beijing. It could also undermine the regime’s continued hold on power. Already, recent months have seen unprecedentedly violent anti-regime protests and the lowest parliamentary electoral turnout in post-revolutionary Iran’s history.
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is tanking under unrelenting U.S. sanctions, the lowest oil prices since 2002, and a collapse in global trade as the pandemic spreads. For the first time, the Central Bank of Iran has requested $5 billion in emergency assistance from the International Monetary Fund. On top of everything, the disease is killing a growing number of political, security, and religious figures in a country run by men in their 60s and far beyond. Officials even had to quash rumors that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 80, tested positive.
As one of the worst-hit epicenters of the pandemic, Iran is in uncharted waters. Many of the government’s decisions have made the crisis worse for the Iranian population, and there continues to be little transparency—including about the role played by Mahan Air. As Iranians continue to fall ill and die from the new disease, the regime’s legitimacy among its own people may be at stake like never before.
Kevjn Lim is a doctoral researcher at Tel Aviv University's School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs. He is also a Middle East and North Africa consultant for IHS Markit.