In a sudden move, the United States recently imposed economic sanctions and punitive measures against an Iraqi middleman airline and Syrian businessman who obtained and sold nine Airbus aircraft to the previously blacklisted Iranian Mahan Air; a privately owned entity. The news of the newly implemented US Treasury restrictive sanctions emerged on Thursday, May 21st, amidst concern over the long term ramifications of the anticipated Iranian nuclear deal that is expected to be finalized at the end of June.
According to US officials, earlier this month, the Mahan Air company based in Iran took delivery of eight Airbus A340 aircraft and one A320 for transfer early this month.
Since 2011, the US has slapped Mahan with sanctions on three occasions. The reasons given were the shipping of arms to the Assad regime in Syria; using their planes to transport members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as members of the Lebanese-based Hezbollah group; which the US has designated as a terrorist organization.
According to published reports, the Iraqi-based Al-Naser airlines and Syrian businessman Issam Shammout along with his company Sky Blue Bird Aviation which is based in the United Arab Emirates, served as fronts for Mahan Air to purchase the planes from “unwitting” European countries. According to a Wall Street journal report, documents tracking the sale that were publically disclosed last year indicate that these front companies were based in the Isle of Man.
The Treasury Department issued a statement saying that the plan to procure these planes for Mahan had been ongoing since 2013 and that Al-Naser paid tens of millions of dollars for each of them.
Working in conjunction with Al-Naser was Shammout and Sky Blue Bird Aviation, who, according to reports had been involved in obtaining parts and aircraft for Mahan. Also blacklisted by the Treasury Department since 2011 is the Syrian-based Cham Wings of which Shammout is chairman. The government agency acknowledged that Mahan may have purchased additional planes as well.
The tangible effects of the US sanctions translate into a freeze of any assets held by Al-Naser Airlines and Shammout in the United States, according to the WSJ report. Additionally, entities in America are banned from conducting business with either Al-Naser or Shammout.
In a related move, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security issued an order denying export privileges to Al-Naser as well as the companies Bahar Safwa General Trading and Ali Abdullah Alhay.
In an indictment of US culpability, Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Washington based think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told the WSJ: “The purchase by Al-Naser Airlines of the Airbus aircraft has been public knowledge at least since October 2014. Yet, no action was taken by US authorities until after the aircraft was delivered to Mahan Air, two weeks ago.” He added that he found it hard to imagine that “US authorities were caught by surprise by this blatant violation of their own sanctions.”
The Wall Street Journal also reported that the US received warnings from Israeli officials in recent months on the potential dangers that these planes could represent. Israel specifically cited the possibility of Iran using them for military purposes and to bolster Hezbollah, according to the people briefed on the deliberations. They added that the Israeli government has aggressively lobbied the US for months in order that they delivery of the planes be intercepted.
US officials, however, said that they have worked assiduously to prevent Mahan Air from the illegal procuring of aircraft of any kind. They asserted that Washington blocked previous efforts to export two planes as well as spare parts to the Iranian government prior to the recent shipments that had succeeded in getting through.
Since an embargo dating from 1995 that prevented Western manufacturers from selling equipment and spare parts to Iranian companies, the Islamic Republic’s aviation sector has confronted difficulties obtaining aircraft and parts. These restrictions, however, were lifted in part through an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that came into force in January of 2014. This allowed for the sales of spare parts, although the direct sale of planes remained banned, according to an AFP report.
A June 30 deadline has been set between the US and Iran for an agreement that would significantly limit Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions by the international community.
In a statement released to the media, Adam Szubin, the Treasury Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence said, “We will continue to actively counter Iranian sanctions evasion, whether in support of terrorist entities or other sanctioned parties. We will not hesitate to sanction those who help in these endeavors.”
The WSJ reported that the Treasury Dpeartment have claimed that the nine Airbus aircraft in question have been designated as “blockable” interests; adding a risk factor for Mahan Air to utilize them on international routes. US officials confirmed this last Thursday and said it will make it extremely difficult for Mahan Air to use the planes. “We want to disrupt Mahan Air’s ability to use them,” a senior US official told the WSJ.