Iran Air participates in Syrian airlift, but Obama does nothing
© Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Obama administration admitted, during a congressional hearing, that it had authorized cash payments to Iran, timed with the release of U.S. hostages, in January. Cash was reportedly loaded onto an unmarked Iranian cargo plane before it was flown back to Tehran.

Congress was right to criticize the administration over this episode. So why should it now let the president approve the largest sale of U.S.-manufactured airplanes to Iran Air, an accomplice to mass murder in Syria?

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Iran Air is negotiating an agreement for the purchase of 100 aircraft from the aviation industry giant Boeing. It is also taking part in the weapons and military personnel airlift to Syria that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, is coordinating on Tehran's behalf.

The morning of the hearing, while administration officials were reassuring Congress that the money was being used to address "critical economic needs," an Iran Air Airbus A300 took off from Tehran, bound for Damascus. But instead of heading to its stated destination, Flight IR697 headed south, to the Iranian port city of Abadan, where it landed for a quick stopover before continuing to the Syrian capital.

For over a year now, Abadan's airport has served as the principal logistics hub for the IRGC airlift in support of Syria's loyalist armed forces and the Shiite militias, which Iran dispatched to Syria, alongside its own Quds Force, to save the Syrian regime from collapsing.

Usually, Iran's Mahan Air and Pouya Air run the airlift alongside Damascus's state-owned airline, Syria Air. Between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the three airlines under Executive Order 13224 as entities engaged in the support of terrorism over their material role in the IRGC's airlift to Syria.

That Mahan, Pouya and Syria Air would continue to carry their deadly cargoes is not surprising. They have nothing to lose. Based on available information on the commercial flight tracker Flight Radar 24, there were at least 195 Mahan Air flights to Syria over the last year.

Iran Air, on the other hand, has much to gain from sitting out the airlift. Last year's nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), left Mahan, Pouya and Syria Air under sanctions, but it delisted hundreds of Iranian entities previously involved in proliferation activities. One of them was Iran Air.

The JCPOA not only removed sanctions against the company, but it lifted aviation sanctions against Iran in general, making it possible for Iranian airlines not under sanctions to purchase new aircraft and spare parts, sign maintenance deals and obtain training for its technicians.

Iran Air has taken full advantage of this. In January, it signed a deal with European industry giant Airbus for 118 aircraft. The Boeing deal would add 100 more. Other deals are being negotiated that would dramatically increase Iran Air's current fleet of 36 aircraft to several hundred.

Participating in the Syria airlift could jeopardize all of this. Under the JCPOA, Washington cannot reimpose nuclear sanctions against entities that have been removed from the sanctions list. But it can slap terrorism sanctions against any of them if they were demonstrably involved in activities covered by Executive Order 13224.

Carrying weapons and personnel to Syria is one such case. Flight records show that Iran Air's flight 697 — the Tehran-Damascus route — was operated 66 times over the last year, including three times from Abadan, on Sept. 8, June 9 and May 10. There were at least an additional 20 Iran Air flights to Damascus between Dec. 14, 2015, and the end of August 2016. Not all originated in Tehran, however. On Feb. 14; June 5, 6 and 7; July 24 and 25; and Aug. 10, aircraft took off from Yazd. On June 25, it originated from Kermanshah. And on July 30 and Aug. 6, 8 and 28, it departed from Abadan.

Many of these flights switched off their transponders above the western Iraqi desert, and in some cases, for part of their journey in Iranian airspace. Moreover, in the abovementioned cases, the flight number's associated route did not match the actual plane's journey. These practices are illegal under international civil aviation rules, and also reveal the intention to conceal the aircraft itinerary and likely its cargo.

Iran has never hidden its resolve to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power at whatever cost. The ayatollahs also have a track record of suborning their country's economy to the pursuit of revolutionary goals. It is not surprising that they instructed Iran Air to contribute to the Syria war effort, but it is disconcerting that Washington has ignored this evidence and allowed Boeing to continue its negotiations. Disconcerting, but given how badly the administration wants the nuclear deal to succeed, not surprising.

Success, however, cannot come at the cost of compliance. The next president should take note of what is by now glaringly obvious: Iran Air should be sanctioned for its role in perpetuating and exacerbating the Syrian civil war.

Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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