Last month, an Iranian drone reportedly violated Israeli airspace after taking off from a base in Syria. Israel shot it down and then launched a wave of retaliatory strikes against both Iranian installations in Syria and Syria’s own air defenses. Tehran’s brazen provocation may have been surprising, yet is a natural extension of Iranian efforts to transform Syria into a forward base for aggression against Israel. There is still a chance, however, for the United States to limit the Iranian presence in Syria, by putting an end to the misguided policies that encouraged it in the first place.
Assessments of Iran’s objectives in Syria often include the establishment of a land bridge — a continuous, unimpeded route over land from Tehran to the Mediterranean. This bridge would bind Syria and Lebanon to the regime in Tehran, ensuring their availability to serve as launching points for a war against Israel. Yet Iran does not need a land bridge: It already has an air corridor. Iran would derive additional benefits from control of the ground transport routes into Syria, yet airlifting tons of supplies and thousands of personnel to Damascus since 2011 has proven just as effective.
Conveniently for Tehran and Damascus, the United States completed its withdrawal from Iraq in the closing months of 2011, at the same time that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was under increasing pressure from the insurgency that erupted after its bloody suppression of protests that spring. With U.S. influence in Baghdad eroding fast, it was only a matter of time before the Iraqi government opened its airspace to Iranian aircraft, allowing them passage on route to Syria.
Neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations did much to disrupt this air corridor. Through its airlift, Tehran has built up Hezbollah’s arsenal to a point where it is much more heavily armed than it was on the eve of its 2006 war against Israel. Iran has also transferred the know-how and technology to establish missile factories, enhancing Hezbollah’s military prowess and making another round of conflict between the terror group and Israel likelier.
The air corridor has also enabled Iran to import tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters and their families to Syria over the years, supporting the regime’s war effort and its ethnic cleansing of the Sunni countryside. Most importantly, through its steadfast and successful support of the Assad regime, Tehran has secured its hegemony over Damascus, making it possible for its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, to permanently deploy within shooting range of Israel’s border with Syria.
The opening of the air corridor to Syria and Lebanon represented a major improvement over the maritime routes on which Iran had previously relied to equip its proxies. Ships leaving from Iranian ports take time to reach Syria and, due to an ongoing U.N. arms embargo against Iran, are at constant risk of interdiction in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. In January 2002, Israel seized an Iranian shipment of 50 tons of arms to Yasser Arafat’s embattled Palestinian Liberation Organization at the height of the Second Intifada. In January 2009, U.S. forces seized arctic cargo ship MV Monceghorsk in the Red Sea. The ship was carrying 2,000 tons of weapons to Syria. In November of the same year, Israel intercepted 500 tons of weapons destined for Hezbollah, on the ship MV Francop.
Iran also sought to combine air, land, and sea routes to supply its proxies. Sometimes, it sent cargos by plane to regional airports, to be transported by truck across the Iraq-Syria border. Other shipments traveled by sea to Sudanese ports and then by truck further up the coast where they could cross into the Sinai Peninsula on small smuggling ships. But Israel repeatedly disrupted that supply route by bombing convoys. Finally, when Baghad opened its airspace in 2011, Iranian arms shipments could reach Damascus more quickly, safely, and directly than ever before.
Iran immediately took advantage and launched an airlift that continues to this day. In June and October 2011, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Iran’s two largest airlines — Iran Air and Mahan Air —for their shipments of weapons to Iran’s proxies abroad. Despite the sanctions, the planes kept flying.
Then, in the summer of 2015, the airlift suddenly escalated. At the time, Iran and six world powers led by Washington were negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Meanwhile rebel forces were pummeling Assad’s army and Iran’s. The commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, flew to Moscow to coordinate a strategy that would reverse the course of Syria’s civil war. It critically relied on a massive increase in supplies of weapons and military personnel by Iran, which would be quickly deployed on the battlefield. The means of transportation would be hundreds of flights a year by Iranian and Syrian aircraft, most of which were chartered from commercial airliners.
Iran Air directly participated in the airlift, with more than 140 recorded flights to Damascus between January 2016 (when the JCPOA’s implementation began) and May 2017, when its scheduled flights to Syria suddenly went dark. Mahan continues flying to this day, with 379 flights recorded since January 2016. So does Syria’s national carrier, along with a Syrian private airline (Cham Wings), an IRGC-owned airline (Pouya Air), and two Iranian Boeing 747s operated by the IRGC and the Iranian Air Force, totaling almost 1,500 flights since the airlift began.
This is much faster, more efficient, and more cost effective than sending thousands of trucks on a lengthy journey through the desert. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’ Farzin Nadimi last year assessed that during a two-month period, the airlift brought 21,000 passengers and 5,000 tons of supplies to Damascus. Assuming these figures are accurate, over a two-year period and at a constant rate, that is more than 250,000 people — mostly militia fighters — and 60,000 tons of supplies.
The Obama administration refrained from confronting Tehran’s airlift to Syria, in keeping with its efforts to secure the nuclear deal with Iran. President Donald Trump has voiced strong opposition to the nuclear deal, yet so far he has not taken action to disrupt Tehran’s airlift either.
Admittedly, the president does not have good options. The United States cannot intercept, search, and seize Iranian aircraft, the way it has Iranian ships. Bombing the runways of Damascus International Airport may temporarily disrupt the airlift, but Syria has other civilian airports, like Latakia, and bombing those would certainly incur Moscow’s wrath.
That’s why new sanctions are the most promising alternative.
Thanks to the JCPOA, three decades of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s civilian aviation came to an end. Tehran immediately went on a shopping spree to replace its aging commercial air fleet, signing numerous deals with Boeing and Airbus. Removed from the U.S. sanctions list despite its active role in the Syria airlift, Iran Air is in the front seat, with nine new aircraft already delivered, hundreds more expected, and still more being negotiated. All combined, Iranian carriers have negotiated and signed deals for more than 300 aircraft, plus spare parts, technical assistance, and maintenance, with the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers — Airbus and Boeing — as well as smaller producers such as Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer.
The United States could block almost all of these deals, which cannot proceedwithout export licenses from the Treasury Department. The JCPOA, after all, stated clearly that aircraft could be sold to Iran only if it was used exclusively for commercial aviation. Yet the deal contains a fatal flaw: An airline can use its old fleet for nefarious purposes, keep the new planes for commercial routes, and technically comply with the nuclear deal’s civil aviation provisions. That’s why re-sanctioning Iran Air is a critical step toward blocking the sale of aircraft.
There is good reason to believe that cancelling the deals would disrupt the air corridor, even though it has endured despite Iranian reliance on aging aircraft built in the 1980s and 1990s, because of the economic and political fallout of such a decision.
With the nuclear deal hanging by a thread and the international business community anxiously awaiting the president’s May 12 decision about whether to pull out, credit lines to Tehran have been slow to materialize. The Airbus and Boeing deals, worth tens of billions of dollars, are the canary in the coal mine for Iran’s economy. If the deals go forward, they will signal to the global financial market that Iran is finally open for business. But if the Trump administration cancelled them, it would kill Iranian prospects of real economic dividends from the deal, even if the JCPOA survives the May 12 deadline.
Put bluntly, no one would finance anything in Iran after the establishment of a precedent that companies and sectors delisted by the JCPOA could be re-sanctioned on different grounds — and material support for the Syrian slaughter seems an eminently sound reason to do that.
Trump should make it clear that the United States will only approve the aircraft deals if Iran puts a stop to its illegal airlift of weapons and fighters to Syria. Iranian aircraft are sustaining Syria’s killing fields and setting the stage for escalation against Israel. Letting Iran buy Western manufactured airplanes, on the other hand, would be the clearest indication yet that the White House is powerless to disrupt Tehran’s inexorable path to war.
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. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.