Suspicions about the role Iran has played in helping to spread coronavirus to other parts of the Middle East have deepened following serious allegations made this week about the activities of a controversial airline.
As the country that has been worst-affected by the pandemic in the region, the Iranian government has already come in for criticism for its response to Covid-19. Critics have alleged a lack of transparency on Tehran's part, especially with regard to producing an accurate total of the number of Iranians who have been affected. The official death toll currently stands at more than 6,000, although many believe the figure could be as much as 80 per cent higher, and an estimated 100,000 Iranians infected.
Criticism is likely to grow in the wake of revelations that Mahan Air, an Iranian carrier with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), continued to undertake flights despite a ban imposed by Iran's authorities at the start of the outbreak in January. According to an analysis of flight-tracking data undertaken by the BBC's Arabic news channel, the privately run Mahan Air flew between Iran and China 157 times in February and March.
Although Mahan Air announced it was suspending flights and ticket sales to and from China on February 2 – in compliance with instructions from the World Health Organisation and Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation – data shows it continued to fly to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Furthermore, an Airbus 310 that repatriated 70 Iranian students from Wuhan to Tehran on February 6 even flew to Baghdad the following day.
Iraq and Lebanon both reported their first cases of coronavirus in travellers from Iran in February, with the BBC claiming both cases arrived on Mahan Air flights. The airline is also said to have made trips to Iraq even though Baghdad banned flights from Iran in mid-March.
While Mahan Air has yet to respond to these claims, airline officials have previously said they had indeed carried out evacuation flights during this period. Suggestions the airline was flouting its own government's flight ban were first reported in the Shargh daily, a reformist newspaper in Iran.
This has, of course, prompted other countries in the Middle East to accuse Iran of effectively helping to spread the infection.
Bahrain said Tehran's actions amounted to "biological aggression". Saudi Arabia characterised them as "irresponsible". Iraq, which said the coronavirus first arrived in the country from Iran, closed its 1,000-mile border with its neighbour on March 8 and resisted subsequent pressure from Tehran to ease the closure. In Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has been accused of importing the virus, a newspaper editorial remarked sarcastically: "Thank you, Iran, for allowing a jet carrying people infected with coronavirus to enter our airspace."
The activities of Mahan Air, and its links with the IRGC, have been the subject of controversy for several years, with the company being accused of acting as the private airline for this branch of Iran's armed forces.
Mahan was subjected to US Treasury sanctions in October 2011 after it was accused of "providing financial, material and technological support" to the IRGC's Quds Force, the organisation headed by Qassem Suleimani until he was killed by an American drone in Baghdad in January. The carrier has also been accused of providing transportation for Hezbollah operatives. In Syria, it has acted as an air bridge to transport IRGC personnel and arms to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. More recently, the airline repatriated Suleimani's body from Baghdad.
Moreover, its activities provide an insight into how hardliners associated with the IRGC operate an almost parallel regime pursuing an agenda that is distinct from the publicly stated agenda of Iran's democratically elected government. Therefore, even as President Hassan Rouhani has attempted to get a grip on the pandemic, the IRGC has run its operations irrespective of the damage they might do to Iran's already battered reputation.
This could have an adverse effect on Mr Rouhani’s attempts to revive the country’s struggling economy, with the government currently engaged in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to secure a $5 billion bailout. The IMF is unlikely to look favourably on the request if it reaches the conclusion that the regime's conduct has indeed exacerbated the spread of Covid-19.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor