There is mounting evidence that Iran has been instrumental in spreading the Covid-19 virus throughout the Middle East. According to BBC News Arabic, Mahan Air, an Iranian airline with close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), flew between Iran and a number of Chinese destinations more than 100 times during February and March, even after Tehran had imposed a ban on such journeys. Pictured: A Mahan Air passenger jet at Sanaa International Airport, Yemen. (Photo credit should read Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)
Mounting evidence that Iran has been instrumental in spreading the Covid-19 virus throughout the Middle East adds a whole new dimension to the regime's already well-established reputation for being a malign influence in the region.
Iran has already acquired the unwelcome distinction of becoming the country in the Middle East that has been worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, registering more than 6,000 deaths according to official figures. There have, however, been repeated accusations that the Iranian authorities have sought to cover up the true extent of the outbreak, and that the death toll may be twice that number.
Now it has emerged that Iran may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus around the Middle East, after allegations that Iranian passenger jets continued to make regular flights to a number of Chinese cities despite a ban being imposed by the Iranian government at the end of January.
According to research undertaken by the BBC's Arabic news channel, which analysed flight tracking data, Mahan Air, an Iranian airline with close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), flew between Iran and a number of Chinese destinations more than 100 times during February and March after Tehran had imposed a ban on such journeys.
One flight, a repatriation effort carried out for the government on February 6, brought 70 Iranian students living in Wuhan back to Tehran before flying the same day to Baghdad. At the same time that the airline was flying to China, it also continued operations to other countries in the Middle East, with the result that it has now been accused of spreading the virus to a number of countries including Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Lebanon. Mahan Air has so far declined to comment on the allegations.
Several Gulf states have accused of Iran of responsibility for spreading coronavirus in their countries, and the revelations about Mahan Air will only add to the view in the region that Iran is behind many of the infections.
Mahan Air is a private company with well-documented links to the IRGC, a fact which has resulted in the airline being subjected to sanctions by the Trump administration for helping to transport IRGC personnel and arms to Bashar Assad in Syria during the country's brutal civil war. More recently, the airline repatriated the body of slain IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, after he was killed by a US missile outside Baghdad airport in the New Year.
The airline was first subjected to U.S. Treasury sanctions in October 2011 after it was accused of "providing financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)" -- the organisation headed by Mr Soleimani. It has also been accused of providing transportation services to Iran's Lebanese terror proxy, Hezbollah.
Sources within the airline are said to have told the BBC that dozens of Mahan Air's cabin crew were showing symptoms of Covid-19 after the flights to China, but that when staff tried to raise concerns about the airline's management of the crisis and provision of safety equipment, they were silenced.
Accusations concerning Iran's role in spreading the infection around the Middle East come at a time when the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is already under enormous pressure of his handling of the pandemic.
Tehran initially tried to downplay reports of the virus, with Mr Rouhani claiming that February 19 was the first time the government knew coronavirus was in the country. This claim has been undermined by reports that Iran experienced its first outbreak in January in the holy city of Qom - where thousands of Chinese students are studying.
Mr Rouhani is now facing fresh criticism following his recent decision to allow Iranian businesses to resume trading at a time when the country is still coming to terms with the outbreak. Critics of the regime have warned that the decision could result in Iran suffering a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.
Claims that Iran has been responsible for spreading the virus throughout the Middle East could also have a negative impact on Tehran's hopes of persuading the International Monetary Fund to provide a $5 billion bailout package. The IMF says the request is still under consideration, but it is unlikely the organisation will be prepared to provide funding to a regime whose irresponsible behaviour threatens the well-being of other countries.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.