Iran’s civil aviation industry has historically aided the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) efforts to procure, supply and transport weapons, ballistic missile components and military personnel to its terrorist proxies and allies such as Hezbollah and the Assad regime. According to a July 2019 advisory published by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Iran has routinely relied upon Iranian commercial airlines to fly fighters and materiel to international locations in furtherance of Iranian state-sponsored terror operations.”
The advisory warns, “U.S. and non-U.S. persons operating in the civil aviation industry face potential civil and criminal consequences for violating OFAC’s [Office of Foreign Assets Control, Department of the Treasury] sanctions programs, including by engaging in unauthorized transfers of U.S.-origin aircraft or related goods, technology, or services to Iran.”
As well as the notorious Mahan Air, which was sanctioned for its terrorist activities as far back as 2011 and is now banned from landing in all of mainland Europe, a multitude of Iranian civilian airlines are listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), including Caspian Air, Meraj Air, Pouya Air, Dena Airways, Khors Aircompany, Qeshm Fars Air. On November 5, 2018, OFAC also added Iran Air, the main civilian airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list. All are subject to “secondary sanctions,” which apply to non-U.S. persons outside the U.S.
Under the terms of the JCPOA, the United States committed to “allow for the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services to Iran by licensing the (i) export, re-export, sale, lease or transfer to Iran of commercial passenger aircraft for exclusively civil aviation end-use.” In December 2016, Boeing entered into a contract with Iran’s national airline, the government-owned Iran Air, for 80 civilian airliners valued at $16.6 billion. In June 2017, Boeing inked another deal with Iran’s third largest airline, Aseman Air, for 30 Boeing aircraft. Aseman’s CEO, Hossein Alaei, has longstanding ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Boeing terminated all agreements with Iranian airlines.
Other major aircraft makers, including Airbus and ATR, have also sought – and succeeded – to do business with Iran. In February 2016, Iran Air announced it would purchase 118 Airbus commercial aircraft at an estimated $27 billion. Airbus received an OFAC license and three of its aircraft were delivered before the Treasury Department revoked its export license for the planes. In June 2017, Airbus agreed to tentative sales of 45 A320 aircraft to Iran’s Airtour Airline and 28 A320 aircraft to Iran’s Zagros Airlines. No license for the sale was announced prior to the U.S. exit from the JCPOA. ATR, owned by Airbus and Italy’s Leonard, sold 20 aircraft to Iran Air. It delivered eight aircraft by the time of the U.S. JCPOA exit and was given licenses to deliver another five by November 2018 effective date of the export license revocation. In April 2019, OFAC granted a license for ATR to supply spare parts (with U.S. consent) to the ATR aircraft used by Iran.
It has always proved impossible to guarantee that planes and parts sold to Iran will be for “exclusively civil aviation end-use.” Even during the height of the JCPOA, at a June 2016 press briefing, former State Department Spokesman John Kirby was unwilling or unable to confirm that Iran Air had taken any action to merit the lifting of sanctions against it or that it was no longer engaged in sanctionable activities.
Iran Air’s attempted aircraft buying spree raises obvious red flags that it is not the final buyer for all the aircraft it is seeking to acquire. Tehran is reportedly seeking to purchase 500 civilian airliners over the next decade, a massive expansion considering that Iran Air and its subsidiary currently operate around 50 aircraft. With no clear need for the number of planes it is seeking, there is a high likelihood that some of the planes delivered will be resold or transferred to the Iranian air force, or other Iranian air carriers still under sanctions such as Mahan Air and Pouya Air (formerly Yas Air, a long sanctioned airline operated by the IRGC and its Pars Aviation Company).
Iran’s civil aviation industry is a clearly complicit partner in ballistic missile proliferation, terrorism, and human rights abuses. The hazards of conducting business with the sanction-designated Iran Air and other Iranian civil airlines, implicated in the provision of material support to the terrorism and human rights abuses of the IRGC-Quds Force, Hezbollah, and Assad, far outweigh any theoretical benefit of commercial engagement in the Iranian civil aviation market.