By circumventing official border crossings and procedures to move militiamen across the region, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may have accelerated the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), experts said.
"The IRGC transports militants of all nationalities to Syria and Iraq aboard civilian aircraft and via land and sea in illegal ways," Iranian affairs researcher Sheyar Turko told Al-Mashareq.
Many of these militiamen are transported under the radar, either via illegal crossings or without being subjected to official government procedures, he said.
"Groups of recruits from the Gulf region and Arab countries also travel to Iran, Iraq or Lebanon to undergo military training at IRGC camps without getting their passports stamped on arrival or departure," Turko said.
This failure to follow established procedure is "to maintain the secrecy of their affiliation and keep the local authorities from finding out about their visits to those camps", he said.
"Other means include infiltration by sea in speedboats, through land crossings in military convoys or aboard buses and Iranian flights" which are known to have circumvented security checks in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, he said.
Skirting health screening
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, many countries have put in place "strict medical screening procedures at their borders and land, sea and air ports", said Saudi Ministry of Health field official Dr. Jamil al-Masoudi.
The aim is to identify travelers who are infected or exhibiting symptoms of a possible infection in order to take the necessary actions, such as treatment, monitoring or quarantine, he told Al-Mashareq.
By skirting such procedures, the IRGC's movements in the Middle East and the Gulf states "put the health security of those countries in certain risk", he said.
He noted that "the IRGC uses its own means of transportation to move conscripts and militants between Iran and other countries where it has affiliates, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria".
This increases the likelihood that the virus will spread through the region, undetected, and "will be transmitted from one person to dozens of others", he said.
Another factor that may be contributing to the regional spread of the virus are the "visits made by some of the conscripts and militiamen to sacred sites, which are very densely populated areas", he said.
Al-Masoudi accused Iran of handling the coronavirus outbreak "with gross negligence, which led to it spreading on a wide scale in all Iranian provinces".
"The authorities kept quiet about the number of infections and fatalities until after the conclusion of the parliamentary elections," he said.
This delay in reporting enabled the virus to spread on a wide scale, he noted.
Early cases linked to Iran
"It has been confirmed that the residents of many areas in the Gulf region were infected with the coronavirus as a result of individuals traveling to Iran," Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Al-Mashareq.
Early infections reported in the Saudi province of Qatif and in Bahrain and Kuwait have been traced to individuals who went to Iran on religious pilgrimages or for other purposes, he said.
Saudi authorities locked down Qatif province after it was confirmed that many of its residents had visited Iran in the recent period, he noted.
"The danger still exists, as the actual number of individuals who visited Iran is not known because they keep quiet about those visits for fear of being hounded by security authorities," al-Abdullah said.
This is despite assurances from the countries concerned "that their safety and that of the general public is what is most important and takes precedent over any other concern", he added.
IRGC-backed militias comprise fighters from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, he said, and the IRGC operates many training camps and military sites where many nationalities mingle.
This makes the "likelihood of the infected transmitting the virus to others definitely very high", al-Abdullah said.
These fighters then return to their homelands without undergoing any medical checks or tests, and transmit the virus there, he added, thus facilitating the spread of the virus across vast geographical areas.