The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to step up its campaign against anti-American regimes in Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua. Recent actions demonstrate that serious application of tough sanctions can work. Biden should take note and act accordingly.

Earlier this week, U.S. authorities flew a seized Boeing 747-300 cargo plane from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a military airfield in South Florida. The plane had once belonged to Mahan Airlines, an Iranian carrier controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and frequently used to support the IRGC’s terror activities — actions for which the U.S. had previously sanctioned Mahan Air.

Mahan had transferred the plane to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Conviasa, the U.S.-sanctioned, state-owned Venezuelan airline in 2021, as part of a broader deal between Iran and Venezuela.

The two regimes subsequently used Emtrasur to evade U.S. sanctions and deliver illicit cargo around the world. But, in June 2022, when the aircraft landed in Buenos Aires, local jet fuel suppliers, wary of U.S. sanctions, refused to fill it up. The plane was eventually grounded there, due to suspicions about its mission and its mixed crew of IRGC officers and Venezuelan military intelligence. After an 18-month-long legal battle, it was transferred to the U.S.

This is a success for U.S. sanctions policy, and it shows a clear path forward. The Biden administration should now seek to replicate this success against the rest of the Iranian-Venezuelan fleet, which is still in the air despite being one plane short.

Without Mahan Air’s aircraft transfers, Conviasa would not be able to operate long-distance flights. And the flights Conviasa operates are not ordinary commercial operations. They are believed to fly frequently almost empty of passengers, but carrying cargo, including carrying Iranian-manufactured drones that have helped Russia sustain its terror attacks against Ukrainian civilian targets and infrastructure. They are also transferring gold from Venezuela to Iran to cover sanctioned transactions.

And when Conviasa does move passengers, it is frequently ferrying illegal migrants to Nicaragua, to send them on their way to flood the U.S. southern border.

These aircraft transfers are recent. In the summer of 2021, the two airlines signed an agreement under which Mahan sold four aircraft to Conviasa, enabling the Venezuelan carrier to begin operating commercial flights to Tehran with its new Iranian-supplied long-haul aircraft. The four aircraft included the Boeing 747 cargo jet now seized by U.S. authorities, and three Airbus A340 passenger craft, which Conviasa bought from Mahan through a Dubai-based intermediary. In 2023, Mahan leased two more Airbus 340 to Conviasa, including one it had acquired through opaque, Africa-based intermediaries.

Conviasa is now operating all five Airbus 340 planes, which Mahan originally acquired in contravention of U.S. sanctions. Conviasa can carry out its illicit activities only because of Mahan — without Mahan’s planes, Conviasa’s fleet would have no long-distance aircraft.

Thanks to Mahan Air’s steady supply of Airbus A340 planes, it has flown dozens of flights to Tehran, adding a Caracas-Moscow and a Caracas-Damascus route in the process. Conviasa also flies, almost daily, between Havana, Cuba, and Managua, Nicaragua, supporting a cynical scheme jointly run with other authoritarian allies in the region to boost the human caravan of illegal migrants trying to enter the U.S.

What could the Biden administration do to further curb Conviasa’s illicit use of sanctioned aircraft? Fortunately, the U.S. seizure of the Emtrasur cargo plane has already had chilling effects on Conviasa’s operations. The Venezuelan airline has already cancelled its service to Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, keeping only its Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuban routes in the region, alongside flights to Iran, Russia, and Syria.

But more can be done.

First, Washington could replicate the pressure brought to bear on Argentina in 2022. Quiet pressure on jet fuel suppliers, airport service providers, and a possible warrant for seizure submitted to the justice ministries of countries where these aircraft land might ground them in a third country, thus depriving Iran and Venezuela of a critical tool to evade sanctions and cause mischief.

Washington could also apply quiet pressure on allies to close their airspace to transiting Conviasa aircraft. This is something the U.S. has done before. On at least two occasions, an Iranian aircraft was denied landing rights or had airspace closed, forcing it to reroute or be grounded. In October 2020, Cape Verde revoked landing rights to an Iranian cargo plane operated by U.S.-sanctioned airline Qeshm Fars Air — another Mahan Air spinoff — as it was making its final approach to the African island nation’s main airport.

In June 2022, Uruguay closed its airspace to the Emtrasur cargo plane as it tried to leave Buenos Aires. The outcome of both actions had significant repercussions: Qeshm Fars Air no longer flies to Latin America, and the Emtrasur aircraft was grounded and has now been seized.

Conviasa’s remaining long haul aircraft, all purchased from Mahan Air, continue to operate their routes to Moscow and Tehran, making them vulnerable to similar action by countries they fly over on the way to their destinations. In addition to Cuba and Nicaragua, Conviasa also flies to Mexico, where the U.S. could initiate seizure actions to repossess the aircraft due to U.S. sanctions violations.

The Biden administration could use quiet diplomacy and legal action in friendly countries to impound planes that Venezuela uses to facilitate sanctions evasion activities serving Tehran and Caracas.

The case of the seized Emtrasur jet shows that, where there is political will, sanctions work. By grounding more aircraft, Washington can cause serious additional damage to the Venezuelan regime and its allies in Nicaragua and Iran. What is the Biden administration waiting for?

Source » thehill