Unfriendly skies: Mahan Air should be grounded for good

Unfriendly skies: Mahan Air should be grounded for good
© Getty Images

Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, Iranian commercial airlines have sustained the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad and the forces waging a scorched-earth campaign on his behalf. Mahan Air has been at the forefront of this effort, prompting the Treasury Department to impose sanctions on it in 2011. Until recently, Mahan and its business partners faced few material costs as a result of sanctions. Its aircraft continued to land not only in Damascus but also at airports across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Then, last year, Treasury changed tactics. Rather than just hitting the airlines with sanctions, the Department began to punish the ground services providers who facilitate the airline’s commercial operations across the globe.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Trump administration, in other words, signaled it intended to raise the cost of Mahan’s complicity in the mass murder of Syrian civilians by making the skies unfriendly to the airline. Its first targets were service providers to Mahan Air in Malaysia and Thailand. Last week, it became evident that these steps are part of a broader strategy: there will be no friendly skies for Mahan Air as long as it abets the Iranian regime’s ongoing war in Syria and global sponsorship of terrorism.

On Thursday, Jan. 24, Treasury sanctioned another Mahan service provider – this time in Armenia – along with Qeshm Fars Air, an airline operating cargo flights on Mahan’s behalf.

The U.S. should continue to pound these facilitators until Mahan shuts down.

The recent moves against service providers in Asia and the Caucasus offer a stark warning to their counterparts in European countries that they may be next. These steps, along with vocal public advocacy by the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, likely influenced Germany’s decision earlier this week to cancel Mahan’s Dusseldorf and Munich routes and, even more importantly, to block Mahan from German airspace.

Germany is the first EU country to take this step and it is a huge blow to Iran. The regime has traditionally relied on German-based procurement networks to acquire dual-use technology it needed for its missile and nuclear programs. These networks, often clustered in hubs around major industrial areas and ports, relied on Iranian aviation cargo services to ship their forbidden acquisitions back home. Agents that the regime dispatched to Europe to conduct sanctions evasion activities would frequently fly Mahan Air’s German routes. Dusseldorf is a key center of such endeavors. Iran’s sovereign wealth fund has a branch there, and a large network linked to the business empire of the Supreme Leader was exposed just outside Dusseldorf in 2013.

ADVERTISEMENT

Germany’s ban is likely to have a ripple effect on Mahan’s remaining European destinations, including Athens, Barcelona, Milan, and Paris. The closure of German airspace will frustrate any attempt to open new routes in Northern Europe and may now sway those who still allow Mahan to land.

Less noticed, but also likely the outcome of quiet U.S. pressure, is that numerous other European capitals had already closed down Mahan Air operations or rejected its offers to open new routes.

What comes next is as critical for grounding Mahan Air for good as these recent measures.

First, Treasury should continue to sanction Mahan’s service providers around the globe. In April 2017 testimony to Congress, I identified at least 67 companies in the European Union, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf, India, China and the Far East providing Mahan with services. Those who continue to assist Mahan Air should be the next targets for sanctions.

The Trump administration should also continue putting intense diplomatic pressure on U.S. allies across the Middle East and Asia to shut down Mahan Air’s flights. Especially at a time when U.S. allies such as the United Arab Emirates are reopening embassies in Damascus and appear ready to turn the page on Assad’s atrocities, Washington should remind them that Iran is Assad’s main backer, so if they expect American help against Iran on other fronts, they shouldn’t let Mahan Air land at their airports.

Finally, Treasury should hit hard those who provide aircraft to Mahan. Its most recent designations made it clear that Qeshm Fars Air — whose small fleet of two Boeing 747 cargo planes were sanctioned last week — is operating on Mahan’s behalf to transport arms and troops to Syria. In the past, Treasury hit Mahan’s middlemen who helped it buy aircraft and parts. That practice should continue as a deterrent to those who think they can make a profit out of helping Iran’s terrorist airline to fly.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi, and follow FDD @FDD.