A government-backed Iranian airline that has flown to and from China as both countries battled worsening coronavirus outbreaks is facing criticism from some prominent Iranians who accuse Mahan Air of risking further spread of the virus in pursuit of profits.
Iranian officials have provided evolving justifications for permitting dozens of such flights since January 31, when the government of President Hassan Rouhani ordered the privately owned airline to stop its China passenger services. The airline responded by announcing it was suspending ticket sales for China passengers until the end of February.
Nevertheless, Mahan Air's flights between the two virus-afflicted countries continued.
During the first nine days of February, Iranian officials said the flights were needed to ferry Iranian and Chinese citizens back to their respective home countries. Later, they said subsequent flights were limited to the transport of medical supplies and personnel to fight the virus — first from Iran to China, where the outbreak worsened in early February, and then from China to Iran, where a similar situation unfolded at the end of the month.
Mahan Air has been sanctioned by the United States since 2011 for providing services to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, an elite Iranian military unit designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Tehran government's shifting explanations for Mahan Air's China flights have drawn scorn from Iranian lawmaker Bahram Parsaei, exiled Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and state-approved media commentators, who have accused the government of allowing the airline to keep flying to and from China for profit.
In an interview published March 5 by Iranian state news agency ISNA, Iran's Civil Aviation Organization (CAO) spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh denied there was any profit motive behind Mahan Air's continued flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. He said the flights were "absolutely not" for regular passengers and solely for humanitarian cargo.
But recent Chinese social media postings suggest Mahan Air has made exceptions to that rule.
The first group of Chinese medics sent from Guangzhou, China, to Iran on February 29 were not the only passengers on their flight, according to a Mandarin-language Weibo post by state-run China National Radio.
"Mahan Air flight W580 had the consent of other passengers … for a delay, as they waited for Chinese anti-epidemic medical experts and materials to board the plane," CNR said, after describing how the medical team had just arrived in Guangzhou on a domestic flight from Shanghai.
CNR did not elaborate on the identities of the "other passengers," whose departure from Guangzhou at 1:51 a.m. China time on February 29 was delayed by more than two hours from their scheduled departure time, according to flight tracking service FlightRadar24.
In another social media post undercutting Iran's description of Mahan Air's China flights as purely humanitarian, the airline used its WeChat account to respond to a user who inquired about travel to China.
"Hundreds of us want to return to China, and we can't buy a ticket. How can we return to China?" asked the user, writing under a February 29 post on Mahan Air's newsfeed.
"Hello, sorry for the inconvenience. If you want to charter a flight, please contact Jennifer, the person in charge of the Mahan Air Commerce Department. Her email is Jennifer.email@example.com," replied the administrator of the Mahan Air account.
Despite the suggestive social media postings, there has been no sign of the airline offering tickets for its China routes online.
Mahan Air's website did not show any tickets available for flights to Tehran from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen through May 1. China's popular Qunar.com travel platform also did not have any ticket listings for such flights.
Mahan Air sales agents at the four Chinese airports did not answer calls made to their office phones during business hours on Wednesday.
However Babak Taghvaee, an Athens-based Iranian aviation journalist, said in an interview with VOA Persian that a loss of the China routes would be costly for the airline.
"For Mahan Air, it is very important to keep the China market open after losing many of its European destinations last year under pressure of U.S. sanctions against Iran," said Taghvaee, who previously worked in Iran's military and civilian aviation sectors as an engineer and a technician. He also wrote for an Iranian aviation magazine before leaving the country in 2013.
Mahan Air's only active route to Western Europe in recent days has been to Barcelona. Its routes to Germany, France and Italy were suspended last year as those nations cited security concerns and heeded Washington's calls to ban the U.S.-sanctioned airline.
Mahan Air also saw its Turkey routes suspended in late February as Ankara tried to prevent Iran's virus outbreak from spreading to Turkish territory.
Taghvaee pointed out that if Iran's only purpose is to transport humanitarian goods, it could be using cargo planes operated by the Iranian air force or by other Iranian airlines such as IranAir, Fars Air Qeshm or Pouya Air, rather than Mahan Air's passenger jets.
It is not economical for Mahan Air to fly its Airbus passenger jets, with a cargo capacity of 40 tons, to or from China with nothing but 15 tons or less of humanitarian supplies, he said. "They have to carry passengers as well, and the humanitarian cargo is a very good cover for them to do so."
A Mahan Air press release posted on its Chinese digital platforms on March 4 said the airline had decided to extend its suspension of Iran-China passenger routes until March 31.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service, in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service and the Extremism Watch Desk.