An Iranian airline sanctioned for giving support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah could have fuelled the spread of the coronavirus in the Middle East, an investigation has found.
Mahan Air operated passenger flights to four Chinese destinations on 16 round-trips in February and March despite the Iranian government suspending the company’s flights as Covid-19 gripped Iran, data on flightradar24.com showed.
The flight destinations included Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, four of the biggest cities in China.
Mahan Air also flew to Lebanon and Iraq after the flight ban and may have introduced the first cases in each country.
BBC News Arabic reported that insiders at the airline said cabin crew were told to remain silent and threatened with prosecution by their superiors when they raised their concerns. The staff also complained about a lack of protective equipment during the flights – and 50 showed symptoms of Covid-19 but were not given opportunities to self-isolate.
On social media, the investigation found evidence of anger in the Middle East about the flights and the health risk they posed.
“I call on the Iraqi government to stop flights from Iran. The flights between the countries are 24/7,” said one man in Iraq as he voiced his concern about contracting the virus.
A woman said: “Why? Why sacrifice the Lebanese people?”
Iran was among the first countries to which Covid-19 spread from China initially and has reported about 100,000 cases and 6,340 deaths. But it is widely believed the true figure is far higher as authorities have sought to conceal the extent of the damage.
A separate investigation, by Bloomberg, found that Mahan Air has been used to transfer about $500 million in gold from Venezuela to Iran this month as payment for Tehran’s help to revive the South American country’s crippled oil refineries.
At least six planes were flown to Venezuela in the past week.
The two nations are working more closely together as they try to avoid US sanctions and a pandemic-sparked collapse in the price of oil.
In 2011 the US Treasury sanctioned Mahan Air for providing “transportation, funds transfers and personnel travel” to the IRGC’s Quds Force.
“Mahan Air also provides transportation services to Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
“Mahan Air has transported personnel, weapons and goods on behalf of Hezbollah and omitted from Mahan Air cargo manifests [of] secret weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah,” the treasury said.
Experts say confined spaces such as planes are high-risk environments in which the virus could spread with ease. Most airlines have made face masks mandatory.
The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday came out in favour of passengers wearing masks onboard.