December 16, 2016 | The Hill

One way to push back in Syria? Target Iranian airlines.

Iran's commercial fleet is helping the Bashar Assad regime and its allies commit vast-scale atrocities in Syria.

The Obama administration should have punished Tehran's war crimes by going after Iran's aviation sector, without which Iran could not deliver weapons and fighters to Aleppo's killing fields.

Instead, it has authorized the sale of aircraft to Iran.

And it won't leverage U.S. non-nuclear sanctions against European and Asian companies providing services to Mahan Air, the airline chiefly implicated in transferring weapons and fighters to Syria.

In practice, Washington's acquiescence has legitimized Iran's military airlift.

The Trump administration should reverse both policies: revoke U.S. licenses to sell Iran aircraft and slap heavy penalties on companies still working with Mahan.

It is well known that Iranian passenger planes ferry Iranian-backed militias to Damascus from Iran's airports such as Abadan, Yazd and Tehran. The aircraft also carry weaponry in their cargo compartment. Weapons flown to Damascus supply Lebanon's Hezbollah, the regime forces of the Syrian army, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and their Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani Shiite militias.

Conclusive evidence that Iran's aircraft is the principal conduit for Tehran's weapons and military personnel airlift in support of Assad's war of extermination against his own people emerged recently, as Boeing representatives were in Tehran to finalize a $16.6 billion aircraft deal with Iran Air. Airbus will soon follow suit with an even larger deal.

Overall, Iran will buy almost 200 aircraft from these two manufacturing giants, with hundreds more expected in other deals with ATR, Bombardier, Embraer and Mitsubishi.

These sales are permissible under the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015, which lifts U.S. sanctions against Iran's aviation sector. Airbus and Boeing are selling their aircraft to no-longer-sanctioned Iran Air, rather than Mahan. Mahan has already been under U.S. sanctions for its role as the IRGC's preferred airline since October 2011.

But there is evidence that Iran Air has at least sporadically participated in the airlift, too. And it is doubtful Iran Air needs all these planes to begin with: The airline has 36 operational aircraft, while its subsidiary, Iran Air Tours, has 14. By contrast, Iran's minister of transport announced that Tehran plans to acquire as many as 500 planes in the next decade.

It is unlikely Iran Air can expand its operations tenfold. It is likelier that it will resell or lease some aircraft to other Iranian airlines — including those, like Mahan, that remain under sanctions.

Even if Iran Air keeps all the planes, Mahan stands to benefit in two other ways.

First, the Airbus deal comes with a much broader modernization packagefor Iran’s entire aviation sector. This includes “the development of air navigation services (ATM), airport and aircraft operations, regulatory harmonization, technical and academic training, maintenance, repair and industrial cooperation.”

Iran has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany's Lufthansa to help Iran repair its aging fleet. A German-managed repair center in Iran would likely produce local technicians whose knowledge and expertise could serve the needs of other airlines as well.

The Obama administration had no reason to rush the licensing process, given continued evidence of Iran Air's involvement in the military airlift. It also had no reason to ignore the blatant violation of its own sanctions by its European, Gulf and Asian allies, whose companies continue to transact with Mahan Air.

General sales agents for Mahan and companies providing Mahan with services such as ticketing, check-in, baggage handling and aircraft cleaning are violating U.S. sanctions. Yet, there has been no consequence for flouting them, because the Obama administration knows Iran aviation sanctions will disrupt aircraft deals.

The incoming Trump administration should reverse this situation.

First, Team Trump should direct U.S. intel to ascertain the nature of cargo and identity of passengers that board Iran Air planes flying between Iran and Syria. Ordinarily, these flights occur twice weekly between Tehran and Damascus.

On a number of occasions, however, Iran Air has flown unscheduled flights from Abadan, the IRGC airlift's logistical hub, to Damascus. Intel should rapidly determine whether those flights carried weapons and fighters. Revoking licenses and re-sanctioning Iran Air and its aircraft should follow.

Next, the new administration should target general service agents for Mahan Air in Europe, the Gulf and Asia. Despite U.S. sanctions, Mahan has actually expanded its commercial routes since the nuclear deal, adding Athens, Greece; Copenhagen, Denmark; Milan; and Paris to its European destinations. It also flies to Dubai, India, China, Thailand and Malaysia.

Everywhere it goes, Mahan relies on an array of service providers. They are all violating U.S. sanctions. There should be a price for that.

Finally, airports such as Abadan, which Iran and Mahan use as logistical hubs for the Syria military airlift, should be sanctioned. Foreign aircraft should no longer land there.

It is not too late to push back against Iran in Syria. Iran's aviation sector would be an ideal place to start.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.


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