Between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated five of the seventeen airlines currently operating in Iran for their support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In all five cases the designations came in response to egregious violations of international civil-aviation standards, including breaches of the worldwide arms embargo on Iran, support for the Syrian regime, and logistical support for proliferation and terrorism. Under the Iran nuclear agreement, the U.S. will now delist three of the five airlines designated on proliferation grounds (under Executive Order 13382), despite the fact that they also provided logistical and financial support for terrorism.
Aban Air was designated under Executive Order 13382 in May 2013 for providing support to Iran Air and the IRGC. Treasury explained that “the IRGC used Aban Air to clandestinely ship cargo to and from Iran.”
Iran Air and Iran Air Tours were both designated in 2011, also under Executive Order 13382. According to Treasury, these airlines are known to “disguise and manifest weapons shipments as medicine and generic spare parts” to Syria. They transported missiles and rocket components in clear contravention of international aviation-safety standards.
Mahan Air, another Iranian airline, was designated in October 2011, under Executive Order 13224 (the terrorism finance authority) “for providing financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF),” including ferrying personnel and weapons to Syria. The Qods Force is Iran’s external terror apparatus.
Similarly, Yas Air (also known as Pouya Air) was designated in 2012 under Executive Order 13224 for acting “on behalf of the IRGC-QF to transport illicit cargo – including weapons – to Iran’s clients in the Levant.” According to Treasury, Yas Air “moved IRGC-QF personnel and weapons under the cover of humanitarian aid.” It delivered weapons to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as recently as April 2015.
Though all five airlines have helped prop up the IRGC and Iran’s military support for the Syrian regime, only Yas Air and Mahan Air will remain under sanctions because of a technicality — the executive order under which they were originally designated (13224) is not impacted by the Iran deal.
By contrast, Aban Air, Iran Air, and Iran Air Tours, despite their very similar activities on behalf of the IRGC, will now benefit from the agreement’s provisions allowing sales of commercial aircraft to Iran. Troublingly, there is little in the agreement guaranteeing that these airlines, now in a position to modernize their fleet, will no longer offer their services to the IRGC.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi