April 11, 2017 | Policy Brief

CEO of Iranian Airline to Buy Boeing Jets Has Ties to IRGC

April 11, 2017 | Policy Brief

CEO of Iranian Airline to Buy Boeing Jets Has Ties to IRGC

Boeing announced last week it would sell 30 B737 Max aircraft to Aseman Airlines – a government-owned carrier that is Iran’s third-largest – in a deal valued at around $3 billion. The deal appears to be permitted under the 2015 nuclear agreement, which lifted U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s aviation sector. There is, however, a problem: Aseman’s CEO, Hossein Alaei, is a decades-long senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, which remains under U.S. sanctions.

Since 1979, Alaei has held senior positions in the IRGC’s military establishment. He joined the Guard shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution and quickly rose to be commander of IRGC forces in two northwestern provinces. In the 1980s, he commanded the Karbala Garrison in the southern front during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1985, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini appointed him commander of the newly established IRGC Navy. Under his leadership, it began using high-speed boats and mines to target commercial and military vessels during the so-called Tanker War with Iraq.

Like his ideological peers, Alaei openly voiced his desire to confront America. During the Tanker War, the IRGC Navy attacked U.S.-owned commercial vessels and Navy vessels, on one occasion injuring U.S. sailors.

Direct confrontation with the U.S. proved costly for Iran, but Alaei nevertheless rose higher still. After the war, he became chairman of the IRGC’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Guard’s third-highest position at the time. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was deputy minister at the U.S.-sanctioned Ministry of Defense.

While at the ministry, Alaei became director of the Iran Aviation Industries Organization. In 2013, the Treasury Department added the organization to its Specially Designated Nationals list pursuant to Executive Order 13382, which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. The organization also manages other sanctioned entities such as Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries and closely collaborates with the sanctioned Iran Aerospace Organization, the entity in charge of Tehran’s ballistic missile program. 

As deputy defense minister and the Iran Aviation Industries Organization’s director, Alaei likely oversaw Defense Ministry programs including the development of Iran’s air defense and ballistic missile program. Since leaving active duty as an IRGC commander, he has remained a lecturer in strategic studies at the U.S.-sanctioned Imam Hussein University, the IRGC’s equivalent of the National Defense University.

Alaei’s past affiliation with the IRGC is not proof that Aseman has any current association with the organization. But it does raise questions about whether that might be so. The U.S. should not sell any aircraft to Aseman until it can definitively rule that out.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow. Follow them on Twitter @eottolenghi and @SGhasseminejad.