US squeezes Iran airlines over arms flights
BEIRUT - The United States has widened its economic campaign against Iran by imposing sanctions on Iranian and other airlines that Washington alleges ferry troops, weapons and money to Syria and Lebanon that keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and the region embroiled in war.
On May 24, the Trump administration targeted Mahan Air, a private airline operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is considered one of the main air links serving Iran’s regional network of proxy forces.
Five other airlines, including Meraj Air of Iran and two Turkish carriers, Caspian Airlines and Pouya Air, along with 31 of their aircraft were designated as part of the US campaign to strangle Iran economically and undermine Tehran’s alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
“The deceptive practices these airlines employ to illegally obtain services and US goods is yet another example of the duplicitous ways in which the Iranian regime operates,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared in a statement.
The crackdown, which also listed Iranian and Turkish individuals associated with the six airlines, aims “to close loopholes that these companies have used over the years to source aviation parts and services,” the US Treasury Department said.
The United States’ drive to cripple Iran’s air operations in support of Tehran’s effort to become the Middle East’s paramount power threatens Iran’s crisis-hit civil aviation sector, long denied new aircraft and spare parts for planes under earlier sanctions, with total collapse.
Hopes of buying a new generation of airliners and commercial aircraft from Europe’s Airbus and the United States’ Boeing are under imminent threat because of the US crackdown.
Iranian plans to buy 118 airliners from Airbus under a December 2016 deal potentially worth $18 billion-$20 billion are in jeopardy following Trump’s May 8 rejection of the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Iran Air, Iran’s national carrier, has ordered another 80 airliners from Boeing under a $16.6 billion deal and 20 twin-engine propeller-driven 72-600 aircraft from the Franco-Italian ATR group based in Toulouse.
These deals are dependent on US licences because the aircraft in question make extensive use of US systems.
The other signatories to the 2015 agreement with Iran, including Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China, want the deals to go ahead despite Trump’s action in reversing the 2015 pact, which eased crippling sanctions against Iran in return for Tehran curtailing its nuclear programme.
The agreement has also been viewed as a vital conduit for negotiations with Tehran to head off a feared confrontation with the West and its regional Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia.
US officials maintain that hardliners in Tehran, their eyes fixed on regional domination, continue to stir conflict through their military air bridge linking Iran to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
“As the aviation community… fixate on recent Boeing and Airbus orders by Iranian airliners, Tehran continues to quietly purchase second-hand aircraft and parts through smaller companies, actively circumventing terrorism-related sanctions against certain airliners and individuals,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed last year.
“By combining military and civilian components, Iran seeks to bolster its regional airlift capability, but any companies associated with such activity — even indirectly — are putting themselves in the crosshairs of US sanctions policy.”
The IRGC’s deep involvement in the air bridge between Tehran and Syria in particular underlines Tehran’s commitment to preserving the Assad regime and eventually to control it as part of Iran’s plan to be the region’s dominant power.
Given the air bridge’s strategic importance, Tehran is expected to make every effort to thwart the US-led campaign to effectively ground Iranian aircraft and those of neighbouring Turkey, which has its own strategic ambitions in the region.
Mahan Air is the main airline operated by the IRGC, particularly its elite al-Quds Force, which spearheads Iran’s foreign military and intelligence operations. Mahan was launched in 1992 with a handful of elderly Russian-built aircraft and is Iran’s second largest airline with links to Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile al-Quds Force commander.
Western diplomats say Mahan is used to ferry fighters and weapons to Syria and to Yemen, where Iran supports Houthi Shia rebels fighting the Riyadh-backed regime.
Mahan Air, which operates at least 36 aircraft, often registered outside Iran, is blacklisted by the United States and most of Europe. Even so, in 2015, it reportedly defied international sanctions by buying nine large commercial aircraft — eight Airbus A340s and one A320 — for $300 million, using a small Iraqi airline, al-Naser, as a front.
That scheme, considered the most ambitious of Iran’s efforts to get around the aviation sanctions, was reportedly conducted through a maze of shady leasing arrangements and contracts across Europe.
Western intelligence sources say that the key IRGC branch involved in the military airlifting is known as Unit 190. It is believed to have been responsible for handling thousands of tonnes of weaponry, disguised as civilian exports or humanitarian relief aid, to Assad’s regime in Syria and to Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy force, in Lebanon.
Hezbollah comprises a key element of the Iranian forces fighting in Syria. In April-May 2013, Israeli forces intercepted a shipment of Iran-built Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah by air.
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think-tank, reported in January 2017 that Iran Air, sanctioned in 2011, was aiding the IRGC by illegally transporting fighters and weapons, including missiles, to Syria in designated civilian aircraft.
This has been reportedly going on since 2006, with IRGC officers frequently taking charge of those supposedly civilian flights.
“The IRGC is also known to disguise and manifest such shipments as medicine and generic spare parts, and IRGC officers have discouraged Iran Air pilots from inspecting potentially dangerous IRGC-related cargo being carried aboard commercial Iran Air aircraft, including to Syria,” the FDD reported.
These flights are one reason Israeli warplanes frequently strike the international airport at Damascus, where the IRGC and Hezbollah maintain arms depots.
The IRGC uses other airlines for its air bridge. Cham Wings, a private Syrian enterprise, has become a regular carrier to Damascus from Tehran in recent years. It was blacklisted by the United States in 2015 along with its chairman, Issam Shammout, and his other airline, Sky Blue Bird Aviation, for allegedly procuring aircraft and spare parts for Mahan Air in contravention of the US-led sanctions.
“Another IRGC-controlled company recently coming to light is Qeshm Fars Air, which took delivery of two vintage Boeing 747-200F cargo jets from Afghanistan’s Kam Air using an Armenian intermediary,” the FDD noted.
Two other aviation outfits, Pouya Air (formerly Yas Air) and Aban Air have also been designated by the Americans. US officials say all have remained active in airlifting military forces and weapons since the 2015 agreement. Pouya is linked to the IRGC’s Aerospace Force and reportedly flies to Syria daily.
Iran Air, Mahan Air and Syrian Air also use the international airport at Abadan, a key oil centre in south-western Iran that is also a major IRGC logistics facility, often without designating their destinations, the FDD reported.
“The flights frequently disappear from tracking systems once they enter Syrian airspace, though radar shows them landing at Damascus, or at other Syrian airfields, both military and civil,” one report observed.
Most of these flights are conducted at night to evade satellite surveillance.
To get some idea of the scale of the airlift, the FDD reported that in a recent 2-month period, these outlaw airlines carried 21,000 passengers to Damascus along with 5,000 tonnes of cargo.