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Iran’s Mahan Air Continues China Flights for Days After Ban, Upsetting Some Iranians

A Mahan Air plane takes off in this undated photo published by Iran's Mehr News Agency.

Iran’s Mahan Air airliner has completed what it says are among its last flights from China, three days after Iranian officials banned such flights to prevent the spread of China’s coronavirus outbreak.

The website of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport showed the arrivals of flights W586, W578 and W576 from Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai respectively in quick succession from 4:30am to 5am Tuesday morning, Iran time.

Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki had announced a temporary ban on all flights to and from China in a Friday tweet, saying the government took the step at his request. China has been at the center of a deadly coronavirus outbreak labeled as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization last month.

Namaki also said Iranians who want to leave China would have a medical escort back to Iran.

Iranian journalists reported on Sunday that Mahan Air was continuing to fly to and from its Chinese destinations, confirming that the ban was not immediate. The reports caused some consternation within Iran, with an Iranian lawmaker representing the south-central city of Shiraz tweeting his displeasure.

"Is the airline autonomous and not subordinate to the government?” asked Bahram Parsaei. “Keeping (the airline’s) inept managers (in business) is more important than people’s lives,” he added.

The Iranian state-approved news site Tabnak chimed in on Monday, publishing an article accusing Mahan Air of putting profit ahead of Iranians’ health by seeking to capture the business of other international airlines that have stopped flying to China due to the virus.

Mahan Air is a privately-owned airline that has been sanctioned by the United States since 2011 for providing services to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, an elite Iranian military unit designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.

In an apparent bid to calm the criticism, Mahan Air sent a statement Monday to state media, saying its flights of recent days were part of a bilateral agreement aimed at bringing Iranians in China back to Iran, and to transport Chinese passengers back to China.

A Mahan Air notice posted on Chinese search engine Sohu’s news portal said it had scheduled only six more days of flights to and from its Chinese destinations following the Iranian government’s Friday announcement of the temporary ban on China air travel.

Chinese travelers wearing face masks to protest against the coronavirus undergo a health screening upon arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport in this undated photo published by IRNA on Jan. 30, 2020.
Chinese travelers wearing face masks to protest against the coronavirus undergo a health screening upon arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport in this undated photo published by IRNA on Jan. 30, 2020.

The schedule said the three Mahan Air flights that landed in Tehran early Tuesday from Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai were the last flights from those cities. It said the final Mahan Air flight from China would arrive in Tehran from Guangzhou early Thursday morning Iran time.

In its Monday statement, Mahan Air said it had stopped ticket sales on all of its China routes until the end of February. But it hinted that more flights to and from China might be scheduled for later in the month, saying any such flights would be to honor the bilateral agreement, whose terms it did not disclose.

In a Saturday tweet, Iranian Health Minister Namaki acknowledged that flights to and from China would keep running for a while longer to allow Iranian and Chinese passengers to return home. Responding to an Iranian journalist’s question, he said he would push back if any additional flights were scheduled beyond those return-home journeys, but added that his ministry does not have the power to stop them.

China also appeared to have influenced Iran’s decision to allow Mahan Air to keep flying to and from Chinese airports for at least a few more days after the flight suspension order.

In a Friday interview with Iranian state news agency IRNA, Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua said his government was doing its best to control the virus outbreak and ensure the safety of foreigners in China. He said the World Health Organization had recognized those efforts by refraining from calling for travel bans to be imposed on China.

Huang took his message directly to Mahan Air CEO Hamid Arabnejad Khanooki in a Sunday meeting, tweeting photos of the encounter and saying Arabnejad expressed a desire to “continue cooperation” with China.

Hours later, Chang kept up the pressure, re-tweeting a commentary by an Iranian Twitter user who criticized the Iranian government’s flight suspension as “hasty and unnecessary” and causing “many problems” for Iranians living in China. The user’s profile said he is based both in the Iranian city of Mashhad and the Chinese city of Hefei.

On Monday, the Iranian embassy in Beijing tweeted a message from Iranian Vice President Sorena Sattari praising China’s efforts to contain the virus outbreak and saying the Iranian people stand with China. Chinese Ambassador Chang liked what he saw, quoting the tweet and responding with the phrase, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. It was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk.