France last month banned Iran’s Mahan Air from flying in and out of the country, citing the commercial airline’s transfers of equipment and personnel to Syria’s Assad regime and other Middle East conflict zones. The move, which comes two months after a similar injunction by Germany, likely reflects the Trump administration’s increasing pressure on European governments.
Since Syria’s civil war began, Tehran has utilized Mahan Air to provide troops and materiel to Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. These transfers have significantly bolstered their military capabilities, fueling Syria’s atrocities against its own people and spurring Israeli airstrikes against Iran-backed forces.
Mahan Air may also pose a risk to Europe itself. In recent years, Iran has committed or attempted to commit multiple terror attacks and assassinations against Iranian dissidents in France, Denmark, and the Netherlands. “It cannot be ruled out that this airline could also transport cargo to Germany that threatens our security,” a German official said. “This is based on knowledge of past terrorist activities by Iran in Europe.”
In 2011, the Obama administration sanctioned Mahan Airto fly to and from countries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, since the sanctions did not effectively target the service providers that give essential support to Mahan’s operations.
The Trump administration has begun to correct this lapse. In July 2018, Washington established a precedent by sanctioning Malaysia-based Mahan Travel and Tourism Sdn Bhd for providing reservation and ticketing services to Mahan Air. In September 2018, it designated Thailand-based My Aviation Ltd for serving as Mahan Air’s general services agent.
In a press release announcing the July sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department noted that its decision “serves notice to the aviation community of the sanctions risk for individuals and entities maintaining commercial relationships with Mahan Air and other designated Iranian airlines.”
Other sanctionable activities, Treasury added, include “procurement of aircraft parts and equipment, maintenance contracts, provision of airline ground services, catering, interline transfer and codeshare agreements, refueling contracts, cargo cooperation agreements, cargo sales agent services and agreements, and freight forwarding services.”
Last summer, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, also began pressuring Germany both publicly and privately to ban Mahan Air. The combination of U.S. sanctions and diplomacy likely spurred Germany to change its policy, though Berlin has denied that U.S. pressure influenced its decision.
For now, Mahan remains active in Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, the United Arab Emirates, and other U.S. partner states. Using its approach to Germany and France as a playbook, the Trump administration should initiate a similar campaign of sanctions and diplomacy to push Mahan Air out of those jurisdictions.
Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.