The record is clear: Iran uses murder as a weapon of statecraft — and it does so, in part, via its commercial aviation sector, which Tehran has suborned to its goals of exporting revolution and sowing chaos.

Iran arms Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, who threaten to open a second front with Israel on the Lebanon border; it supplies drones to Russia, which deploys them against Ukrainian civilians; it props up the murderous Maduro regime in Venezuela, trying to turn that country into its forward operating base in the Americas. The common denominator in each of these endeavors? Iran’s commercial aviation sector.

Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in March 2011, Mahan Air has played a pivotal role in Iran’s support for its proxies and allies. Even under sanction, the air carrier works to advance Tehran’s ends. As sanctions against Mahan piled on during the last decade, the airline has taken to transferring its aircraft to Iran’s allies, and has spun off proxy airlines to elude restrictions.

The latest such spinoff is Yazd Airways, ostensibly a new private airline, but in fact a carrier operating Mahan aircraft, which since the beginning of the Gaza war two months ago, I have observed on FlightRadar24 flying almost exclusively from Tehran to Aleppo and Latakia, in Syria, presumably to deliver weapons for Hezbollah.

Over the past decade, U.S. aviation sanctions have, with a few exceptions, prevented Mahan Air from acquiring new aircraft. But these sanctions are not sufficient to disrupt the use and abuse of commercial aircraft by Iran’s regime for ulterior motives. The Biden administration should ramp up its sanctions against Iran’s commercial fleet – first, by designating Yazd Airways, and, second, by aggressively seeking to ground sanctioned aircraft that Mahan Air uses directly or through proxies to advance Iran’s objectives.

The evidence demands more aggressive action. For instance, Iranian commercial aircraft, mainly operated by Mahan Air, crisscrossed Iraqi airspace to deliver military equipment and personnel to Assad and Hezbollah beginning in 2011, and then increased their tempo in the summer of 2015, when Iran and Russia coordinated their efforts to save Assad’s regime.

In 2017, Iran launched a new airline, Qeshm Fars Air, to operate cargo flights. Despite its new name and ostensibly private ownership, Qeshm Fars was owned and controlled by Mahan Air and ferried weapons and sanctioned merchandise across the globe, including to Ethiopia, Myanmar, Russia, and Venezuela.

In the spring of 2020, Mahan launched an airlift to Venezuela. Its long-haul aircraft ferried between the two capitals, reportedly carrying much needed oil sector equipment to rescue Venezuela from mounting gasoline shortages. It reportedly flew back with Venezuelan gold, an ingenious scheme between Tehran and Caracas to evade U.S. sanctions. Even after the airlift ended, Iranian aircraft continued to fly to Venezuela. At first, large-bodied cargo aircraft, operated by Fars Air Qeshm, frequently crossed the Atlantic, making stopovers along the way. But these flights encountered numerous problems, likely due to quiet U.S. diplomatic pressure on the countries where the aircraft made stopovers.

The flights abruptly stopped when Russia invaded Ukraine — because Russia needed help, and Iran wanted to help. So Fars Air Qeshm cargo switched plans, and began regular flights to Moscow instead. Mahan Air stepped in to ensure the vital air link between Caracas and Tehran would survive U.S. pressure. In the summer of 2021, two airlines signed an agreement: Mahan sold four aircraft to Conviasa, enabling the Venezuelan carrier to begin operating commercial flights to Tehran. The four aircraft included an old Boeing 747 cargo jet and three Airbus A340 passenger craft, which Conviasa bought from Mahan through a Dubai-based intermediary.

Since that deal, Conviasa has flown dozens of flights to Tehran, adding Caracas-Moscow and Caracas-Damascus routes in the process. Though ostensibly passenger flights, Conviasa aircraft are carrying cargo. Mahan’s aircraft, sold to Venezuela in contravention of U.S. sanctions, have enabled Caracas and Tehran to continue to use commercial flights to carry out illicit activities. These activities include Iranian drones that have helped Russia sustain its terror attacks against Ukrainian civilian targets and infrastructure; gold transfers from Venezuela to cover sanctioned transactions; and now weapons to Hezbollah.

U.S. sanctions have had mixed success: They have not stopped these flights, but they have severely degraded Iran’s fleet, its ability to obtain original parts and service, and its ability to procure new aircraft. Additionally, sanctions have cost Iran significantly. Mahan no longer flies to any European destination, and service providers to Mahan — such as general service agents — have been hit by sanctions. New sanctions could therefore add to pressure, also exposing Mahan Air’s reported shell game of spinning new proxies and giving planes a fresh layer of paint to duck restrictions.

In the past, most countries were reluctant to close their airspace to transiting Mahan aircraft. But on at least two occasions, Iranian aircraft were denied landing rights or had airspace closed, forcing flights to reroute or be grounded. In October 2020, Cape Verde revoked landing rights to a Qeshm Fars Air flight as it was making its final approach to the African island nation’s main airport. Then, in June 2022, Uruguay closed its airspace to a cargo plane formerly owned by Mahan and at that time operated by Conviasa’s cargo subsidiary, Emtrasur. Emtrasur’s aircraft was forced to land in Argentina, where it remains grounded. Qeshm Fars Air no longer flies to Latin America.

Conviasa’s remaining long haul aircraft, all bought from Mahan Air, continue to operate their routes to Moscow and Tehran, making them vulnerable to similar action by countries they fly over on route to their destinations. Conviasa also flies to Peru and Mexico, and Yazd Airways flies to Istanbul, all places where the U.S. could initiate seizure actions to repossess the aircraft, due to U.S. sanctions violations.

In addition to sanctioning Yazd Airways on the same ground as Mahan and Qeshm Fars, the Biden administration could therefore use quiet diplomacy and legal action in friendly countries to impound planes Iran uses to move weapons to Hezbollah (as in Yazd Airways’ case) or facilitate sanctions evasion activities serving Tehran and Caracas (as in Conviasa’s case). 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 denying Iran and its allies a critical tool to evade sanctions and continue fueling their wars of aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

For too long, Iran has gotten away with using its commercial aircraft to wreak havoc in the Middle East and prop up its authoritarian allies. The Biden administration should not allow Iran to continue getting away with murder.

Source » themessenger