By Benoit Faucon, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Jeremy Page
Iranian officials trace the origins of the country's coronavirus
epidemic to the holy city of Qom, home to dozens of seminaries and
religious shrines -- but also a number of Chinese-backed
infrastructure projects built by scores of workers and technicians
This critical link to China, centered in Qom, has helped keep
Iran's economy alive in the face of American sanctions. And it is
now being stress-tested by the coronavirus. The exact route of the
virus is unclear. But Iran's strategic partnership with Beijing has
created a constellation of potential contacts that helped unleash
the illness, called Covid-19.
"China has been the trading partner of last resort but, in this
case, it has turned into a very toxic bomb," said Sanam Vakil,
deputy Middle East director at Chatham House, a think tank in
China Railway Engineering Corp. is building a $2.7 billion
high-speed rail line through Qom. Chinese technicians have been
helping refurbish a nuclear-power plant nearby. There are also
Chinese religious students studying at Qom's seminaries.
Iranian health officials have said the source of the outbreak is
likely either Chinese workers in Qom or an Iranian businessman from
Qom who travelled to China. Iranian officials haven't identified
the businessman by name but say he travelled from China to Qom
through an indirect flight.
Once the pathogen was loose in Qom, a city of roughly one
million people, it spread rapidly, taxing a sanctions-stretched
health-care system, amplifying economic woes and fueling an
"We were unhappy with all these crappy Chinese goods
everywhere," said a housewife who asked to be quoted by her last
name, Ms. Ashtari. "Now they brought us this crappy virus,
According to official statistics, more than 350 Iranians have
died from the new virus. The government says 9,000 people have been
infected; epidemiologists say the number could actually be in the
tens of thousands. Travellers, many of them pilgrims, carried the
virus to at least 15 other countries, the World Health Organization
and governments in those countries say.
Dozens of Iranian officials and parliamentarians have contracted
the coronavirus since the outbreak began in Iran. Iranian media
Wednesday evening reported that First Vice President Eshaq
Jahangiri had contracted the coronavirus, along with two other
cabinet members. The semiofficial Fars news agency published a list
of 24 officials infected with the virus, at the top of which was
Mr. Jahangiri. On the list were also the minister of industry,
mines and business, Reza Rahmani, and the minister of cultural
heritage, Ali Asghar Mounesan.
Mr. Jahangiri is the most senior Iranian official to contract
the virus yet. The list of infected officials also counts more than
20 lawmakers, as well as Masoumeh Ebtekar, a spokesperson for the
Iranian students that besieged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979
and who currently serves as a more junior vice president and the
highest-ranking Iranian woman in government. Deputy Health Minister
Iraj Harirchi, prominent reformist Mahmoud Sadeghi and the head of
parliament's foreign policy commission Mojtaba Zonnouri have also
The government reacted slowly to the outbreak. Hours after the
first infections were announced, the victims were declared dead,
suggesting that the coronavirus had been allowed to spread for
For days after the first cases were discovered on Feb. 19, Qom's
clerics defied government orders to close shrines. By the end of
the month, when authorities cancelled Friday prayers for the first
time in decades in an effort to stem the epidemic, the disease had
already spread to most provinces.
Weeks earlier, on Feb. 1, as the coronavirus outbreak centered
on the central Chinese city Wuhan worsened, the Iranian government
had banned its airlines from flying to China. It gave an exception,
however, to Mahan Air, which has emerged as a popular source of air
transport for the country's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard
The U.S. government alleges the airline transported personnel,
money and arms for the Guards, and provided transportation for the
Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which Washington considers a terrorist
organization. After the Guards' Qods Force commander Qassem
Soleimani, who frequently travelled with the airline, was killed by
a U.S. drone in January, his coffin was returned to Iran on a Mahan
Mahan Air said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal that it
had carried out eight flights between Tehran and China between Feb.
1 and Feb. 9 to transfer Chinese and Iranian passengers to their
respective home countries. Since February 12, the airline had flown
12 flights with cargo -- such as flying testing kits and disposable
masks to Iran -- and followed disinfection and hygiene instructions
issued by the health ministry.
"We carry out flights under full supervision of the health
ministry," Reza Jafarzadeh, spokesman of Iran's Civil Aviation
Organization, told state radio. "Whether incoming foreign
passengers have been tested or not is a matter for the health
Mahan Air has made at least 43 trips since Feb. 1, according to
online flight records from FlightRadar24, including one to Wuhan on
Feb. 5, which evacuated 70 Iranian students living there, according
to Iran's Foreign Ministry. The students were quarantined after
their arrival from Wuhan, deputy health minister Alireza Raeisi was
quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Mahan Air said the numbers from the flight tracker are
Mahan Air's most recent flight from China landed in Tehran from
Shanghai on the morning of March 9, according to FlightRadar24.
There is no official total count of passengers.
Iran's Minister for Roads and Urban Development said Thursday
that an investigation by the health ministry had concluded that the
coronavirus hadn't been brought to Iran by one of the country's own
airlines, according to state television. The minister didn't
provide an explanation for that conclusion.
Irate Iranians have accused the airline of serving as a conduit
for the deadly virus. "We won't forget the coronavirus of the
traitor company #Mahan Air," said one Twitter user, while another
called on the airline's managers to be prosecuted.
To combat the epidemic, Iran's authorities have erected
checkpoints on roads leading to and from major cities, and
Revolutionary Guard and police forces on Friday closed streets
leading to major infection hubs in the country's north, far from
Qom. Drones have been deployed to disinfect streets.
In contrast to China, which took draconian measures to contain
the coronavirus in Wuhan, Iranian officials have insisted they
won't quarantine Qom, calling such measures a relic from pre-World
War 1 times.
Iran's health-care system has struggled to cope with the sudden
case load stemming from keeping the extent of the illness under
wraps, according to Kamiar Alaei, an Iranian public-health expert
and co-president of the Institute for International Health and
Education in Albany, N.Y. "It's not necessarily about the quality
of the health-care system," he said. "It's about mismanagement and
On March 5 -- two weeks after the first deaths occurred in Iran
-- the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj.
Gen. Hossein Salami, suggested that the global spread of the
coronavirus may be the work of U.S. biological warfare against
China and Iran: "Today, the country is engaged in a biological
battle," Mr. Salami said at a ceremony in Kerman.
Many Iranians have refused to get tested, worried that they
might contract the virus in hospital.
China, Russia and the World Health Organization have delivered
thousands of test and diagnostic kits as well as respiratory
machines. France, Germany and Britain also have transported
equipment and pledged close to EUR5 million ($5.67 million) through
the World Health Organization or other United Nations agencies.
But Iran officials, traders and experts say it won't be enough
to make up for dwindling stocks of supplies and faulty equipment.
Most of the installed equipment in hospitals in the country was
historically supplied by Western companies, which Iranians have
tended to prefer to Chinese alternatives.
Some companies that supply testing kits or respiratory
equipment, such as ventilators, have stopped delivering to Tehran
because their banks refuse to carry the payments, Iranian
distributors said. In September, the U.S. imposed sanctions on
Iran's central bank.
Despite Iran's own struggle to contain the virus, many Iranians
are directing their anger at China for bringing the illness to
their country in the first place. "When you put all your eggs in
one basket, this is what you get," said Ali, a 43-year-old
kitchenware seller in Tehran. "The Chinese are everywhere."
To keep a lid on popular anger, the government in late February
blocked entry for Chinese travellers. China hasn't blocked entry
for travellers from Iran, although Beijing and Shanghai have since
early March required arrivals from Iran and others badly affected
by the coronavirus to self-quarantine for 14 days. Three charter
flights from Iran have brought hundreds of Chinese back to
In recent days, China announced that at least 42 people --
including some Chinese nationals who came back from Tehran via
Moscow or Bangkok -- were found to be carrying the virus after
returning from Iran.
--Drew Hinshaw, Aresu Eqbali and Lekai Liu contributed to this
Write to Benoit Faucon at email@example.com, Sune Engel
Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jeremy Page at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 11, 2020 12:12 ET (16:12 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.