Last June, a trio of Iranian airlines announced plans to purchase a total of 83 new planes from Airbus and Boeing. Iran Air Tours is ordering 45 planes from Airbus and Zagros Airlines is ordering 28 more. Qeshm Airlines, which is owned by Tehran’s Ministry of Oil, revealed it would purchase 10 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Previously, national flag carrier Iran Air placed orders for 200 new planes – 100 from Airbus, 80 from Boeing, and 20 from the Franco-Italian firm ATR – while Aseman Airlines ordered another 30 from Boeing. The size of these orders, for a total of 313 new planes, has already surpassed the number of current commercial aircraft in Iran – 298 planes, of which 124 are reportedly grounded due to lack of spare parts.
Of the five airlines that have made or announced recent purchases, Iran Air and Iran Air Tours were previously under sanctions because of their role in military operations, including the transport of weapons to Syria on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); Aseman Airlines is chaired by a former senior commander of the IRGC; and Qeshm Air used to be owned by Babak Zanjani, a sanctions evader delisted by the JCPOA who is now on death row in Tehran for embezzling $3 billion of Iran’s oil money. As a result, Iran’s Ministry of Oil now owns the airline. Only Zagros, a private airline flying mostly domestic and regional routes, has no present or past connection to any sanctionable activities.
There are three main risks involved in the sales of aircraft and accompanying services to these five carriers. The first risk is that the planes could be used to sustain Iran’s current airlift to Syria, which would violate the JCPOA’s prohibition on sales of civilian aircraft for military purposes.
The second risk is that even though new aircraft might be used properly, their addition to Iran’s civil aviation fleet would extend the shelf life of older civilian aircraft being used in the Syria airlift. Such sales would thus indirectly facilitate activities proscribed under U.S. law.
The third risk is that know-how transmitted to Iranian technicians through training could be transferred to sanctioned entities or used to repair aircraft serving the Syrian military airlift.
Pending a thorough review of Treasury licenses for purchases of civilian aircraft already issued to Iran Air and its subsidiary, Iran Air Tours, the Trump administration should consider the following steps to remedy this state of affairs, due to Iran Air’s participation in the Syria airlift:
Planes for clunkers. Iran’s fleet, as noted, is old, with 124 planes currently inoperable. The U.S. should demand that Iran scrap old aircraft (one for one) as new aircraft are consigned. This would prevent Iran from diverting old planes to the Syrian airlift while using new planes to meet its civil aviation needs – an approach that narrowly complies with the JCPOA. Forcing Iran to decommission old planes would be reasonable since Iran has routinely claimed they are unsafe to operate anyhow.
Foreign-based assistance. Maintenance facilities and training services for Iranian airlines should under no circumstances be established or provided in Iran. Instead, specially designated facilities outside Iranian sovereign territory (likely in Iran’s near abroad to make the arrangement logistically feasible) could be established, offering spare parts storage and maintenance for aircraft by foreign technicians. These facilities would enable Iranian airlines to maintain their aircraft while depriving Iran with the possibility to divert knowledge and resources to nefarious activities or sanctioned entities.
The Trump administration cannot repeal the JCPOA provision that allows the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran, but it can block sales to any airline found to engage in sanctionable activities, such as the Syria airlift. Unquestionably, the U.S. intelligence community should carefully assess, prior to any sale, whether Iranian airlines are JCPOA compliant. Even if no violations are found, the Trump administration should implement the precautionary policies listed above in order to limit the benefits that Iran’s nefarious activities get from legitimate aircraft deals.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.