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What Spurs Iran's Mahan Air To Continue Flights To China Despite Public Outrage?

A Mahan Airline plane at Mashhad International airport, undated photo.

Many Iranians hold Mahan Air, believed to be under the direct control of the Revolutionary Guard and a source of funding for its activities, responsible for the coronavirus crisis in the country. They also say "the top culprit in the coronavirus crisis", as a lawmaker put it, could not have continued its China flights, without permission from an authority above Hassan Rouhani's government. Given the political dynamic in Iran, that can only be the Revolutionary Guard which is accountable only to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Echoing the concerns of the Iranian public on Friday MP Bahram Parsaei said the Parliament must probe the role of the National Civil Aviation Organization (CAO) and Mahan Air in the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in the country. "Their crime is bigger than those who hoard masks," he said and added that the Civil Aviation Organization has as much responsibility as Mahan Air for allowing the flights to contaminated cities in China to take place.

That the government which controls the Civil Aviation Organization has not been able to enforce a flight ban to China is evident from the many contradictory statements made by government officials. On January 31, after an urgent cabinet meeting to take measures against the spread of coronavirus to Iran Spokesman Ali Rebiee announced a Cabinet decision to cancel all flights to China. Curiously, unlike other Cabinet decisions this one was never published on the official government website.

Radio Farda's own investigation of online flight information shows that from February 4 to February 23 the airline had at least 55 return flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Gwangju and Shenzen and the flights still continue. In the face of public concern about the continuation of flights and the virus scare an official of the Roads and Transportation Ministry in early February said the airline had been allowed "a limited number of flights to China".

Mahan Air has, however, consistently denied having commercial flights to China and claims the flights have been for transporting "humanitarian aid" including coronavirus test kits, medical equipment, etc., a claim echoed by the Spokesman of the Civil Aviation Organization on March 5.

The possible role of the airline in creating and even deepening the coronavirus epidemic was first voiced on social media by whistle-blowers and ordinary citizens but now it has spread even to highly censored newspapers and news websites.

Why the airline and its owners endangered the lives of millions of Iranians by refusing to halt documented flights to various Chinese cities is a very difficult question to answer but Iranian media have in recent days shed light on some possible motives.

It is no secret that the Revolutionary Guard and other entities under the direct supervision of Khamenei have huge financial interests in many sectors of the Iranian economy. One Iranian news website (Rouydad 24) has said that the same planes which flew to China later headed to Kerman and Asalouyeh, pointing out the possibility that the airline has been shipping car parts to a car manufacturer in Kerman (Kerman Motor) and other merchandise to Asalouyeh, the home to a free trade zone and South Pars plants and refineries.

Interestingly, Mol-Al-Movahedin Charity Institute, a "non-profit charity" based in Kerman and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard owns 100 percent of the airline and 50 percent of the car manufacturer. The shady "non-profit" is in fact a huge holding with its tentacles in virtually every sector of the economy and a source of funding for the Guards, and most probably its Qods Force, activities.

But a political motivation is also possible, namely, to reinforce the alliance with China for more support against Western powers in the face of U.S. sanctions that have nearly paralyzed the country's economy. For the first time in six decades Iran has had to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $5 billion loan to manage the coronavirus crisis.

At the height of the coronavirus crisis in China, Hamid Arabnejad, the CEO of Mahan Air, held a meeting with Ambassador Chang Hua at the Chinese embassy in Tehran on February 2 and according a twitter post by the ambassador "announced that [his company] would like to continue cooperation with China".

"Looking to the East", a doctrine of forging political and economic alliances with non-western countries, China and Russia in particular, against the United States and European powers, is one of the favorite mottos of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.