The private Iranian airline Mahan Air (founded in 1991), which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is again in the spotlight following a BBC investigation. Mahan is owned by the Kerman Molal-Movahedin Non-Profit Institute founded by Hossein Marashi, former vice president, governor-general of Kerman Province (1985-1994), and close ally of the late former president Rafsanjani (cousin of Rafsanjani’s widow). Marashi said in November 2019 that IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani had agreed to join the Molal-Movahedin Institute’s board of trustees and had good relations with him.1
BBC’s investigative report revealed that Mahan Air continued flights to China – where the coronavirus originated – even after the banning of flights earlier in the year to prevent the spread of the virus in Middle Eastern countries. In March, the airline’s ongoing flights sparked a heated domestic debate in the Iranian written, broadcast, and social-network media. It was also reported recently that Mahan Air is operating an airlift to Venezuela to help rehabilitate that country’s collapsing oil industry.2
Notable in this context is a March 12 report in the reformist newspaper al-Sharq on “Coronagate” – the continued Iranian flights to China, in general, and to the city of Wuhan, in particular, even after the flight ban was imposed. The report called for a thorough investigation of Mahan Air’s activity in the midst of the coronavirus crisis in light of its lapses and its opaque policy.
Mahan Air’s involvement in terror and helping to promote the regional and international activity of the Quds Force – the special-operations, terrorism, and subversion arm of the IRGC – were already exposed a decade ago. At that time Mahan Air was blacklisted several times by the U.S. Treasury Department for helping the Quds Force ferry IRGC fighters and advisers, foreign fighters, weapons, and logistical assistance to the different arenas in which Iran meddles, particularly Syria, Lebanon (mainly involving Hizbullah), and Yemen,3 while also helping to further Iran’s plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. also blacklisted individuals and entities for supporting the operations and flights of Mahan Air to conflict zones. As result, a number of European countries, including France, Germany, and Italy have banned sanctioned Mahan Air from landing at their airports.
On May 4, the BBC published an investigative report4 in Persian and Arabic asserting, among other things, that Mahan Air’s continued flights to China after the flight ban and the Iranian government’s own prohibition on flights were what caused the spread of the coronavirus to several Middle Eastern countries to which the airline kept flying as well. The BBC investigation analyzed available flight data and found that from the end of January to mid-March, Mahan Air operated hundreds of flights to and from Iran and Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Syria – countries with a considerable IRGC presence and activity. Except for Iraq, the countries to which the flights continued refused to respond to the investigation.
The report states that these countries gave the airline permission to land even though they had banned flights from Iran. It also reveals that a large number of the airline’s cabin-crew showed symptoms of the disease, but when they tried to inform the company’s management and obtain protective equipment, they were silenced and told to keep flying even on Iranian domestic flights, and even threatened that they would be prosecuted if they publicly revealed these facts. This conduct on the airline’s part was among the main causes of the spread of the virus and also endangered the passengers.5
On January 31, Iran officially suspended all flights to and from China in order to slow down the spread of the disease. Mahan Air, however, was the only airline to continue flying to and from China, seemingly ignoring the government’s instructions as well as harsh criticism in the local media. Although the airline claimed the flights were for the purpose of transporting aid to China and bringing back Iranian citizens, the investigation’s findings point to numerous other flights, and it appears that the government allowed all these to continue.
The first coronavirus cases in Syria and in Lebanon arrived on Mahan Air flights. Some of the passengers were Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon and Syria who had visited the holy Iranian city of Qom, which was one of the first and main centers of infection, and some were Hizbullah and IRGC fighters. In Lebanon and in Iraq, bitter criticism was leveled at Iran and at the officials who had allowed the flights to continue and thus introduce the coronavirus to these countries.
In Lebanon the first coronavirus case was reported on February 21. It was a female pilgrim who had returned on Mahan Air’s flight W51152 from a pilgrimage to Qom. A number of cases were also recorded in Hizbullah strongholds in the Bekaa Valley after the return of operatives, fighters, pilgrims, and students, whether from religious seminaries in Qom or from activity in Syria where there was exposure to IRGC members. These were treated in Hizbullah’s hospitals and through its welfare institutions such as the Islamic Society for Health (ISH), and it appears that Hizbullah refused to reveal the true incidence of the disease among the Shiite population. Mahan Air kept operating flights to these countries even after it had been decided to ban flights for various reasons.
The BBC’s investigation was widely distributed and prompted numerous responses from supporters and opponents of the Iranian regime on Arabic and Persian social networks. Some of the criticism was directed at the BBC itself, which Tehran has long decried for its unsympathetic coverage. Some accused the BBC of bias against Iran and of ties with the United States, and claimed, among other things, that it was no coincidence that, several days before the investigation was published (after the revelation of Mahan Air’s flights to Venezuela),6 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had called to prohibit Mahan Air flights to the South American country.7 Others accused the IRGC of terror and of spreading the virus.
Mahan Air’s close ties to the IRGC are what enabled it to keep flying around the world so extensively despite the flight ban, to keep promoting the IRGC’s economic and “security” ties, and particularly to continue the aid to Hizbullah in Lebanon; to the pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq, which was politically unstable and needed Iranian involvement so as to elect a prime minister “to its taste”; to Syria; and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The BBC investigation and the welter of responses reveal that the IRGC is continuing to operate “above the law” even as Iran struggles with the coronavirus.
At the same time, the report’s impact in the Arab world will likely intensify – especially in Iraq and Lebanon – the suspicion and criticism toward Iran and its allies, in conjunction with Iran’s fragile political and economic situation and its attempts to stabilize it. This is especially the case in Lebanon, where Hizbullah is being berated amid the ongoing economic crisis in that country with its political ramifications (a crisis exacerbated by the German government’s decision to designate Hizbullah a terror organization), and also being blamed in the Shiite community for its ties with Iran and for the price that Lebanon continues to pay for Hizbullah’s ongoing involvement in Syria.
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4 https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1257370694645669889; https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-52491335 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Udmcn_yPx5M