Logistics Capabilities

In the past, Venezuela has supported Iranian logistics operations to supply the Assad regime in Syria. In 2008, Agence France-Presse reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transported electronics and engine components from Iran’s chief solid-propellant missile manufacturer, Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), to Assad in contravention of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737. In exchange, IRGC personnel were dispatched to Venezuela to train the Chávez police and repressive secret service agencies. It was not until February 2020 that the U.S. finally designated Conviasa. 

Venezuelan-Iranian military cooperation is partly dependent on logistics capabilities. Those capabilities have improved through deepening economic ties. In particular, the tourism sector provides a pretense, according to the June 2022 cooperative agreement between the two countries, to reopen the “air bridge” from Tehran to Caracas. After having suspended them for years, Conviasa now provides weekly flights between Tehran and Caracas. Conviasa came to the attention of U.S. national security officials early in the Obama Administration for its ties to military, intelligence, and terrorist logistics operations. However, the flights continued through 2015, when they were abruptly closed down.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents dubbed the commercial flights “Aeroterror,” watching as they ferried drugs and cash to the Middle East and returned, often via Damascus, with Iranian spies, Quds Force operatives, weapons technicians, Hezbollah and Hamas fighters, and arms and explosives. Hezbollah received $1 billion per year through its involvement in narcotics over this period of time, while personnel and weapons were transferred into Venezuela.

Iran’s misuse of civilian airliners—particularly the IRGC-linked and U.S.-designated Mahan Air—to conduct logistics operations supporting its proxies in the Middle East and brutal dictators, President Assad of Syria and President Putin of Russia, is well documented. Mahan Air is currently working with Conviasa, its analog in Venezuela. Conviasa now owns a cargo airline named Emtrasur, which began operating a Mahan Air Boeing 747 out of El Libertador Air Base in January 2022.

The plane made headlines in June 2022 when Argentina grounded it and found former IRGC members on board, including the pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi Abbassi, a former IRGC Aerospace Force general, an architect of Iran’s misuse of civilian airliners to arm proxies, and now the managing director of another IRGC-linked airline, Qeshm Fars. A Mahan Air flight log was found on board the cargo plane, showing stops in Moscow, Tehran, and Caracas, raising fears the plane could have been involved in transporting war materiel to Putin.

At the time, Iran International also reported that an Argentinian lawmaker believed some Iranians on board the Venezuelan plane planned to carry out “attacks on human targets.” Later, reports surfaced that the plane had transited through Paraguay, prior to arriving in Argentina, for the purpose of loading 80 tons of cigarettes purchased from a Hezbollah-linked company.

As previously noted, Iran’s Mahan Air has also been involved in gold shipments. In late February 2023, Israeli intelligence confirmed reports from a few months prior that the smuggling of Venezuelan gold was linked to terror financing and unveiled key actors in the Mahan Air operations. An IRGC’s Quds Force unit managed by an Iranian businessman named Badr Ad-Din Naimi Musawi, was responsible for acquiring the Venezuelan gold, selling it at a profit in Iran, and then using the proceeds to fund Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. Hezbollah operatives were also implicated in the funding scheme.

Mahan Air Airplane
Mahan Air Airplane