Flight tracking data and open source footage showed how Iran’s Mahan Air airline continued to fly while government flight bans were implemented in the region and contributed to the spread of the coronavirus in the Middle East, an investigation by BBC News Arabic has found.
The investigation found that Mahan Air – Iran’s largest airline – ran hundreds of flights between Iran and several countries in the Middle East in the time period between late January and the end of March. And that the destination countries gave the Mahan Air flights permission to land despite having implemented their own bans on routine flights from Iran.
Mahan Air sources told the BBC that dozens of cabin crew members were showing symptoms of COVID-19 and that when staff tried to raise concerns about the airline’s management of the crisis and provision of safety equipment, they were silenced.
In-mid March, Iranian state media reported that Mahan Air Iranian pilot Asghar Loran died due to the coronavirus.
The United States had imposed sanctions on Mahan Air in 2011 for its links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and for smuggling weapons to Iran’s proxies in the Middle East’s war zones on behalf of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the IRGC.
The airline has also been accused to be a significant contributing factor to the spread of the COVID-19 in Iran, the second worst-hit country in the Middle East, because it continued its flights to several cities in China, where the outbreak of the pandemic began, throughout February despite an official Iranian ban on flights to China being announced on January 31.
The BBC investigation found that Mahan Air ran flights between Iran and Beijin, Shanghai, Guanghzou and Shenzhen in China between late January and end of March.
According to the investigation, while there were a few flights which carried aid from Iran to China and some were flights to repatriate Iranians, an additional 157 Mahan Air flights were operated between the two countries after February 5.
The first deaths due to the coronavirus in the Middle East were reported in Qom, Iran. Officials said on February 19 that the COVID-19 virus killed two elderly Iranians in the Shia holy city south of Tehran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had accused “Iran’s chief terror airline” Mahan Air of bringing the coronavirus into Iran through its flights to China.
By February 25th, 27 people had tested positive for coronavirus in six countries across the Arab region after having returned from Iran.
Coronavirus cases underreported in Iran
Iran confirmed a total of 99,970 coronavirus cases while the death toll reached 6,340, a health ministry official said on Tuesday.
However, many experts and Western officials say the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities is grossly underreported by the Iranian authorities.
Pompeo had accused Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei of lying about the outbreak in the country.
“The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world about the number of cases and deaths, which are unfortunately far higher than the regime admits,” Pompeo said.
Some Iranian officials had also said the number of cases is much higher than officially reported.
Iranian MP Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imenabadi said on February 28 that the number of fatalities due to the COVID-19 virus was “much higher” than the official death toll and said that there were “horrific numbers” from cemeteries in his city of Rasht alone.
“I say this explicitly, the statistics presented so far are not true,” he said.
A member of Iran’s national coronavirus task force, Hamid Souri, had told official news agency IRNA on April 6 that up to half a million Iranians could be infected with the coronavirus based on official estimates.
An analysis by The Atlantic magazine put the estimated number of infected people in Iran at 2 million.
Al Arabiya English