It is becoming clear that Iran’s intimate strategic links with China and flights to and from China – which continued throughout February and March – were a major factor in Iran’s pandemic explosion.
Iran’s coronavirus infection rate has made it a virus hot spot in the region. The Iranian regime has now “officially” reported nearly 3,000 deaths, but many experts believe the real numbers may be far higher. Iran has been censoring, threatening and imprisoning Iranians who reveal real statistics to the media.
How did Iran get here? Despite claims that travel bans don’t work and are ineffective in the global battle against China’s Wuhan Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Iran is a perfect example proving those claims false.
Even as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei falsely dismissed the deadly COVID-19 outbreak as “a biological attack,” his theocratic regime continued military flights to China – potentially as part of the clandestine relationship between Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other Chinese government entities. As America.gov notes, these clandestine flights clearly put the Iranian people, and the greater Middle East, at greater risk of the rapidly spreading pandemic.
According to the WSJ, Iranian health officials have said Chinese workers in the religious city of Qom are a likely source of the virus in the country. Iranian travelers, many of them religious pilgrims, then carried the virus to at least 15 other countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments in those countries say.
Various reports indicate that the “top culprit” was Iran’s Mahan Air, a U.S.-sanctioned airline that the IRGC reportedly controls. The IRGC uses the airline to transport weapons, money and supplies, as well as export terrorism. Radio Farda reported that this airline flew at least 55 round-trip flights to cities in China between February 4 and February 23. These flights violated the Iranian government’s publicly stated ban on flights to China announced January 31. The IRGC leadership reports directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not the official Iranian government.
Iran’s rapidly spreading pandemic also highlights the extensive overt and clandestine strategic links between Iran and China. The WSJ reports that these “flights may have continued, at least in part, to support the regime’s strategic partnership with China, including nuclear power and railway projects near Qom, which has seen the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran.” However, clandestine links between the IRGC and PLA involving illicit weapons research and deliveries cannot be ruled out either.
According to the South China Morning Post, “China not only sold Iran small arms but supplied it with tactical ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm. Chinese design and technology can be seen in many Iranian missile series, from the short-range Oghab and Nazeat missiles to the long-range Shahab.” The fact that so many senior Iranian officials and IRGC leaders have been infected by COVID-19 may provide a clue as to the level of those links.
Meanwhile, the WSJ notes, the Chinese presence in Iran is ubiquitous and many Iranians are directing their anger at the regime for making the country dependent on China, and at China for bringing the illness to their country in the first place. “The Chinese are everywhere,” said Ali, a 43-year-old kitchenware seller in Tehran, “When you put all your eggs in one basket, this is what you get.”
It is ironic that Iran’s close strategic links with China may also be the reason so many of Iran’s leaders are now sick or dying.
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Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.