Mahan Air's return flights to China 'fuelled coronavirus outbreak in Iran'

Mahan Air's return flights to China 'fuelled coronavirus outbreak in Iran'
As Iran formally suspended flights to the virus' one-time global epicentre, Mahan Air flights between China and Iran continued unabated, reports suggest.
3 min read
31 March, 2020
Flight data recorded 55 Mahan Air flights between China and Iran until Feb 23. [Getty]

A stream of flights between Iran and China, spearheaded by an airline linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, played a key role in starting and fuelling the coronavirus outbreak in the country, a report in Foreign Policy magazine suggests.

Mahan Air is already the target of US sanctions for facilitating the delivery of Iranian arms and personnel to Syria, in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's murderous campaign against his own people.

It has also embarked on a campaign of misinformation surrounding its flights to-and-from major Chinese cities, including Wuhan.

While the Iranian government 31 January formally suspended flights to the virus' one-time global epicentre, following reports of a mass outbreak in Qom, flight arrival and departure information reveal that Mahan Air routes between China and Iran continued for another week.

The airline's continued flights to Wuhan despite the government ban was supported by senior officials, Foreign Policy alleged.

In a 2 February tweet, China's ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua cited Mahan Air CEO Hamid Arabnejab's ''continued desire'' to operate in China.

Following rare criticism of the airline in the semi-official ISNA news agency, Mahan Air later issued a press release announcing a suspension of all emergency repatriation flights to Wuhan and elsewhere.

However, Flightradar24 data soon found 55 Mahan flights between Tehran and four major Chinese cities were recorded by 23 February.

Routes between Beijing and Shanghai continued even as the government announced its first two deaths from Covid-19.

In an other instance, the airline alleged that cargo flights providing humanitarian assistance to China - itself a highly dubious claim from Iran, which was suffering its own shortage of medical supplies - was later shown by flight data to be a passenger flight.

As the situation deteriorated inside Iran, Mahan continued to operate to-and-from China to repatriate citizens and send back Chinese nationals, including one flight from Wuhan.

Sources suspect that students linked to a seminary at Qom's Al-Mustafa International University - a Shia religious school - were also aboard those flights.

The actions of the private company mirror patterns of behaviour exhibited by the country's ruling authorities.

Read also: Coronavirus in the service of authoritarianism 

Leaked documents strongly suggest that cases in Qom were identified as early as 31 January, implicating the government in a cover up.

President Rouhani claimed that 19 February was the first date government realised cases existed, and precautionary measures to combat the disease were delayed until after 21 February parliamentary elections.

According to Foreign Policy article, the Mahan Air affair also sheds light on Iran’s ultimate dependence on China.

While the pandemic further isolates Iran its relationship with China, the country’s most important trade partner and chief customer for oil and gas, could not have been threatened with the outright cancellation of flights.

There are fears that anger at the Iranian government against the coronavirus outbreak could morph into public resentment against the thousands of Chinese nationals living in Iran, the article added.

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