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Iran's Sanctioned Airline Continues Flights To China Despite Ban Amid Virus Scare

Photo posted on Twitter account of Chinese Ambassador in Tehran Showing Ambassador Chang Hua (L) with Hamid Arabnejad (C), CEO of Mahan Air. January 2, 2020

Iran's Deputy Minister for Roads and Transportation on Tuesday said Mahan Air "has been allowed a limited number of flights" to China despite a general government ban on flights to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the country.

In a report published by the government website on Tuesday, Shahram Adamnejad said Mahan Air has been authorized to fly to China to take Chinese nationals back and repatriate Iranian nationals.

Mahan airline was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2011 for supporting the Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force. On December 11, 2019 the Treasury Department designated three of Mahan Air's general sales agents based in the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong for "facilitating the Iranian regime's support to proxy militias".

A meeting of ministers of health, foreign affairs, interior, roads and transportation, and intelligence with First Vice President Es'haq Jahangiri on January 31 decided to ban all flights to and from China amid fear of a coronavirus outbreak.

Speaking to ANA on Tuesday, Ali Kashani, Director-General of Imam Khomeini International Airport, said all Iranian airlines have halted their flights to and from China since Friday except for Mahan Air which has the authorization of the Civil Aviation Organization and "higher authorities".

Reports of continuation of Mahan Air flights to China despite the ban have drawn some criticism from lawmakers and the public. A member of Iran's Parliament on Tuesday said flights between Iran and China have not stopped despite the official "suspension" of flights.

Speaking to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Bahram Parsai, a member of the Parliament's Article 90 Committee, said although First Vice President Es'haq Jahangiri has communicated a ban on flights to and from China, Iranian airlines are still flying to China.

Social media users in the past few days have reported that Iran's privately-owned Mahan Air is still flying to and from three different airports in China.

According to a Twitter user who posted a video from Istanbul airport on Sunday, Chinese passengers were boarding a Mahan Air flight to Tehran, presumably to be transported to China from Tehran.

In a Twitter post in Persian on February 2, Chang Hua, the Chinese ambassador in Tehran, said he had met with the CEO of Mahan Air, Hamid Arabnejad, who "announced that [his company] would like to continue cooperation with China".

In a tweet in Chinese on Tuesday the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif said the United States is "taking advantage" of the coronavirus outbreak in China and claimed that China has been more responsible and successful than the United States in preventing and controlling H1N1 flu in 2009. He did not explain how the U.S. is taking advantage of the situation.