April 17, 2017 | The Hill

Trump’s Syria strategy must target Assad’s chief protector: Iran

The strikes ordered on April 6 by President Trump to respond to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack helped restore America’s credibility in the region after years of retreat. But if the president wants to really hurt Assad, he should push back against Iran, the strongman’s chief protector. Disrupting Iran’s airlifts to Syria by re-sanctioning its civil aviation sector would be a good place to start.

Even after the Iran nuclear deal reached in 2015, the United States can still use non-nuclear sanctions to counter Iran’s regional ambitions and ongoing support for terrorism. In practice, however, this measure has been rarely used, especially with regards to Iran’s ongoing airlifts to the Assad regime and Hezbollah.

Regrettably, the deal lifted U.S. aviation sanctions against Iran exactly at a time when the sector became vital to Tehran’s war efforts in Syria. Put simply: the deal has made it legal to sell aircraft to airlines that are accessories to Assad’s war crimes and keep Hezbollah armed to the teeth. The president should reverse this and bar any new aircraft from reaching Tehran until Iran stops fueling Syria’s civil war with its commercial airliners.

The activities of Iran’s aviation sector have exposed the inadequacy of the nuclear agreement’s caveat that licensed items and services must be used “exclusively for commercial passenger aviation.” Currently, at least five Iranian and two Syrian commercial airlines are engaged in regular military airlifts to Syria.

These carriers have been crisscrossing Iraqi airspace since 2011, but have increased their tempo since the summer of 2015, when Iran and Russia coordinated their efforts to save Assad’s regime. Flight tracking data indicate that, from the nuclear deal’s implementation day on Jan. 16, 2016 to March 30, 2017, there were at least 696 flights from Iran to Syria, only six of which were carried out by Iran’s air force.

In 2011, the Department of the Treasury blacklisted Iran Air and Mahan Air over colluding with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in these military airlifts. It also blacklisted Syrian Arab Airlines in 2013 and Cham Wings in 2016 for transporting weapons and fighters to Syria. These airlines are not ferrying civilian passengers between Tehran and Damascus. The two primary Iranian actors in the airlifts are Iran Air and Mahan Air, with a combined 345 out of 696 flights, almost half of the total.

Mahan Air remains under U.S. sanctions because of its support for terrorism. Iran Air, by contrast, is no longer sanctioned, despite its material support to the IRGC and Syria’s internal repression, and despite weapons’ transfers to Syria and the use of deceptive practices to conceal its cargo. The U.S. government delisted Iran Air due to a political agreement — namely the nuclear deal — but there is no evidence its behavior has changed.

It is extremely likely that Iran Air is still an active participant in the Syria airlifts. First, there is no justification for frequent commercial flights to Damascus: Syria is a war zone with little tourism or commerce, yet it is served almost twice daily by Iranian airlines. Iran Air, for example, flies to Damascus twice a week.

The flight cannot be purchased on Iran Air’s booking website or through travel agencies and the booking website does not include Damascus among its destinations from Tehran’s international airport, where the flights originate. Finally, Iran Air flights to Damascus occasionally make unscheduled stopovers in Abadan, an IRGC logistical hub for the Syria airlifts.

Iran Air’s participation in the Syria airlifts would make the airline eligible for renewed sanctions — a possibility that Congress and the administration should instruct the intelligence community to investigate. If Iran Air’s participation is confirmed, the administration should immediately revoke aircraft licenses authorizing sales of aviation industry items and services to Iran Air, re-sanction the airline, and relist its current fleet.

That’s why Congress should also demand transparency over aircraft sales to Iran. The financial terms of the Boeing and Airbus deals are surprisingly opaque. If Iran Air is found to be ferrying weapons and fighters to Syria, the two manufacturers would unwittingly become accessories to war crimes. Congress should demand that Boeing and Airbus make those details public.

The United States should also renew its focus on Mahan Air, Iran’s largest commercial carrier, and the most active Iranian carrier on the Iran-Syria route. Existing U.S. sanctions have not stopped European and Asian companies from transacting with Mahan. It is not that U.S. sanctions are ineffective. It is rather that the U.S. has so far declined to impose sanctions against those who provide material support to Mahan. It is time to reverse that and punish Iranian and foreign providers of material support to Syria’s airlifts and its participants, first and foremost Mahan Air.

Further actions that Trump should consider include targeting airports and jet fuel suppliers. Abadan’s and Tehran’s international airports are the main IRGC logistical hubs for the airlifts to Syria, and the U.S. should sanction both.

Finally, Washington should consider designating the Abadan Refining Company for selling jet fuel to the aircraft involved in the airlifts and its parent company, the National Iran Oil Refining and Distribution Company. Additional targets should include the aircraft’s primary insurers, and the financial institutions involved in facilitating the transactions.

Sanctions against Iran proved effective once already. It is high time the president aims them at Tehran again.

Emanuele Ottolenghi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit research institute focused on foreign policy and national security. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi. 


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