Trump’s Iran problem takes to the skies with Iran Air
© Getty

President Trump has an Iran problem.

He spoke out forcefully against the nuclear deal during his campaign and is now on record saying that Tehran is not respecting the agreement. Yet, under pressure from his advisers, Trump has twice certified Iran’s compliance with the deal. Still, it seems clear that the president wants to get tougher on Tehran right away. If that is the case, then he should direct the Department of Treasury to slap new sanctions on Iran Air, the national carrier of the Islamic Republic, and cancel its licenses to purchase a combined 200 planes from Boeing, Airbus, and ATR, an Airbus joint venture with Italy’s Leonardo.

New sanctions would rely on the authorities established by executive orders punishing material support for terrorism and for the Syrian regime. Such sanctions are fully consistent with the nuclear deal, which only prohibits new sanctions on the Iranian nuclear enterprise. Iran Air richly deserves to be sanctioned, because in addition to being a national carrier engaged in commercial flights, the airline has helped Iran’s Revolutionary Guards throw a lifeline to the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria and Iran’s terror proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

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The nuclear deal lifted sanctions against Iran Air and allows the sale of commercial aircraft, parts, and services to other Iranian carriers as well. But the deal does not obligate the administration to permit every sale. In fact, it stipulates that aircraft sold under license be used exclusively for civilian purposes, which clearly disqualifies any airline working on behalf of Assad and Hezbollah.

Backed by Iran’s airlift, the Assad war machine is responsible for the death of half a million people, the displacement of millions more, the gassing and torturing of thousands, and the ethnic cleansing of vast swaths of the Syrian countryside.

Iran Air is one of seven airlines involved in carrying fighters and supplies to Syria. It is the only one among them currently allowed to purchase new Boeing aircraft. Since the nuclear deal was implemented in January 2016 and until August 11, there were at least 1,008 flights to Syria from points of departure within Iran, of which Iran Air operated 134 (based on publicly available evidence from commercial flight trackers).

There are numerous indications that these 134 flights were military, not commercial in nature. Tickets could not be purchased on Iran Air’s website, which does not list Damascus as a destination. Flights departed at random times, made unscheduled stopovers, or left from a different airport from the one associated with the flight number. All these signs suggest that these airplanes were part of a military airlift designed to throw support the Assad regime in its war against its own people.

Until recently, however, no open source proof had emerged to offer definitive confirmation that these flights to Damascus were for military purposes.

But then, on August 4, the Iranian anti-regime website, War Reports published photos of Iran Air’s involvement in the airlift. The photos show Afghan militiamen affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on board Iran Air aircraft, on their way to Damascus.

In one instance, the militiaman taking a selfie on flight was later shown photographed in his Fatemiyoun brigade uniform — the Afghan militia established, trained, and commanded by the IRGC. Palmyra Castle, in Tadmur, Syria, is clearly identifiable in the background. Pro-regime forces recaptured Tadmur from the Islamic State in March 2017. Photos, according to the website’s administrator, are dated August 2016 and January 2017, both after the Iran deal was implemented. The dates of the photos match flights to Syria operated by Iran Air. Iran Air, guilty as charged.

No doubt, Iran will denounce any attempt to cancel the Boeing and Airbus deals and re-sanction its national carrier as a violation of the nuclear agreement. It will threaten and it might choose to walk out. Washington’s European allies may side with Iran given that European manufacturers Airbus and ATR, with 113 aircraft still to deliver out of 120 commissioned, have even more to lose and their sales, with more than 10 percent of their components manufactured in the United States, also depend on Treasury licenses. Clearly, fights are looming — inside the administration, between the president and Boeing, and between the U.S. and its European friends.

The Trump administration might thus be tempted to ignore the evidence against Iran Air and let Boeing and Airbus fulfill their multibillion dollar deals with Iran. It’s easier to sanction little known companies involved in Iran’s ballistic missile procurement efforts than to undercut a U.S. blue chip company from whose executive ranks the president is drawing some of his appointees. But if the president prioritizes Boeing profits over national security, it would undermine his tough talk on Iran.

In light of evidence tying Iran Air to the Syria airlift, the consequences of not re-sanctioning the airline and letting its multibillion dollar aircraft deals proceed are clear. The administration would avail the sale of modern aircraft, spare parts and assistance to a company currently providing material support to war crimes. The president would thus undercut his own credibility by showing that Iranian (and possibly European) pushback, coupled with the prospect of financial losses by an American manufacturer, are sufficient cause for the White House to back down from its tough talk.

That’s why sanctioning Iran Air for its role as a material supporter of terrorism and war crimes in Syria is crucial. It is time the Trump administration matches its tough Iran rhetoric with commensurable measures. The evidence now available against Iran Air justifies this course of action.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute specializing in national security and foreign policy.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.