May 6, 2020 | Washington Examiner

EU should sanction Iranian airlines exporting coronavirus and terror

May 6, 2020 | Washington Examiner

EU should sanction Iranian airlines exporting coronavirus and terror

Amid a global coronavirus pandemic, two Iranian airlines sanctioned by the United States for “secretly ferrying operatives, weapons, and funds” to Syria have flown dozens of times between China, Iran, and some of Europe’s biggest cities. Mahan Air and Iran Air have for too long escaped scrutiny from European lawmakers eager to improve ties with the regime in Tehran. Permanently denying Mahan and Iran Air landing rights would deprive their regime minders of terror funds, and cease ferrying passengers to and from the Middle East’s coronavirus hub.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. Some 97,000 people, including members of the regime’s senior leadership, have tested positive. According to a report from Germany’s Die Welt, Tehran’s leaders have been fabricating their official coronavirus death toll, with Western security sources and experts believing the real number is at least 4 times the reported number.

Iran, it’s worth noting, has no excuse for exposing its citizenry to added risk during this crisis. Despite a widespread U.S.-led sanctions efforts against Iran’s regime, humanitarian aid — food, medicine, and the like — is still permitted to enter the country. Reports show Iran has steadily imported aid without issue, despite regime protestations to the contrary. Iran’s health minister has admitted as much, toeing the party line but acknowledging sanctions had not hindered the import of essential medicine.

Flight records reviewed through tracking website FlightRadar24 show Iran’s explosion of cases may be linked to frequent trips between Tehran and China, where the Chinese Communist Party has for months lied about the severity of the crisis. Though the regime in Iran announced in January it would bar flights from China, that proved to be another lie. The State Department has pointed to 55 flights between Iran and China in February alone, and a review of flights early this week confirmed that Mahan Air is still flying between Tehran and cities across China. At present, flights between Iran and China are scheduled to continue into May.

The reason for these flights is no mystery. The regime in Iran prefers to fund global terror and brutally repress any domestic dissent rather than concentrate sufficient resources on this crisis. That profligate foreign spending makes maintaining good ties with the resource-rich and image-conscious autocrats in Beijing a national priority, whatever the cost. Although Iranian officials have good reason to suspect that Chinese workers in Qom are the likely source of the outbreak in Iran and that China has long lied about its case numbers, strategic considerations likely outweigh concern for local lives.

That the mullahs, like the CCP, care little for the truth or the well-being of its citizens is unsurprising. That major European nations would expose their citizens to the same flights and risks is. Though many European countries moved swiftly to curb flights from China, few acted to stop those from Iran. So long as China and Iran continue their robust air traffic, blocking one but not the other will do little good.

Mahan Air and Iran Air have been central to that spread. In March and April, the two airlines operated dozens of flights into the heart of Europe, with regular service to Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In recent weeks, 50,000 Iranians traveled to Southeast Asia, Europe, or Canada, according to Die Welt. Of those, 1,000 went to Germany, and 900 to the U.K. Additional Iranians went elsewhere across Europe’s Schengen Area. In mid-April, the Italian Embassy in Iran announced Iran Air would be resuming direct flights from Tehran to Rome and Milan.

Perhaps most dangerously, the same aircrafts have flown to and from Iran, China, and Europe in rapid succession, threatening to transmit the virus between cities without requiring direct person-to-person transmission. For example, an Airbus A340 belonging to Mahan Air recently flew to and from Tehran, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Barcelona, and Istanbul. In late March, a Mahan Air pilot reportedly succumbed to the virus.

Some European nations have begun to respond to the danger posed by Mahan Air. France, in March 2019, banned Mahan Air for facilitating war crimes in Syria. Italy announced late last year it would follow suit. Germany, at U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell’s urgingannounced a similar policy last year on security grounds. Yet Iran Air, no better than Mahan Air, continued to service Germany for months and is again landing in Italy.

Tides may be turning. In April, Germany’s federal minister of health finally announced an immediate ban on flights from Iran. He called the territory controlled by the regime in Tehran a “high-risk area,” where the situation is “non-transparent.” With the help of Mahan and Iran Air, that lack of transparency has long enabled Tehran to export terrorism and misery to Syria, and now pandemic across Iran and into Europe with impunity. What more will Europe need to suffer at the hands of Mahan and Iran Air before its leaders shut them out for good?

Benjamin Weinthal (@BenWeinthal) is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mikhael Smits (@mikhaelsmits) is a research analyst in the Center on Military and Political Power. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Read in Washington Examiner

Issues:

COVID-19 Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance