Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Iran has launched an airlift to salvage Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro regime from collapse. On April 22, after a 15-hour journey, a Mahan Air Airbus 340-642 landed at the Las Piedras Josefa Camejo International Airport. Mahan is sanctioned by the U.S. for its support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. Officially, Iranian commercial planes are carrying desperately needed help for Venezuela’s largest—and the world’s third largest—refinery complex, located in the Paraguana peninsula. Venezuela’s beleaguered economy is running desperately low on gasoline—the result of the Maduro regime’s systematic plundering of the country’s oil economy. Iran has the know-how and the technology to help Venezuela—an ideological ally in its global struggle against the United States.
Yet the benefits for Tehran of having a regular direct flight with South America suggest this is also a pretext to establish a permanent new route, which Mahan Air already announced last year. Before April 22, 2020, Mahan had flown only once to Caracas, in 2019, purportedly to discuss the route. Since last week, there have been daily flights. Disrupting this airlift, and potentially a regular direct service, should be a key priority for the Trump administration.
First, what Iranian planes carry back to Tehran should concern the White House. The Venezuelan regime has all the accoutrements of a sovereign national government. In fact, it is a narco-terrorist state using the trappings of state institutions to plunder natural resources and enrich its self-proclaimed anti-imperialist stalwarts while starving the population of a once wealthy country.
The regime has depleted the country’s oil sector and embezzled its wealth while letting its infrastructure rot. It has precipitated an environmental catastrophe in the Orinoco Delta by allowing—and profiteering from—rampant illicit gold mining. It has turned its socialist government-controlled food and medicine programs into instruments of extortion and racketeering. It has turned the country and its ports into a thriving infrastructure for Latin American drug cartels. Collusion with the cartels includes Maduro and his newly minted minister of petroleum, Tareck El Aissami, the regime’s liaison with Iran and Hezbollah.
Iran is dedicated to its struggle against America, but unlikely to mount such an operation free of charge. As Bloomberg reported yesterday, those planes are carrying back gold bars from the depleted Venezuelan central bank reserves as payment for Iranian assistance—and could also be used to transport other ill-gotten gains, such as cocaine, which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the real patron of Mahan Air, could quickly turn into much-needed hard currency for its nefarious activities.
Second, direct flights from Iran to Venezuela mean that Iran can also leverage Venezuela’s ability to access sanctioned goods as payment for its services. This type of cooperation is not new. Before 2016, when the Iran nuclear deal removed much of the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran, Caracas repeatedly helped Iran bypass financial sanctions: The two countries established joint ventures in the banking and automotive industry sectors, and large infrastructure projects in Venezuela were awarded to Iranian companies with regime ties. Between 2007 and 2010, the two countries operated a weekly flight between their capitals (with a stopover in Damascus), which was aptly nicknamed “aeroterror,” given that, despite being advertised as a commercial service, it was accessible only to regime-connected passengers on official business and rumored to ferry drugs and weapons.
Venezuela is now under its own significant sanctions pressure from the U.S. and offers diminishing returns to Tehran. Regardless, its geographic location makes it easier to transfer goods procured on Latin American markets to Iran by plane. Iran can rely on vast networks in Latin America, many of which are linked to local Hezbollah financiers. Over the years, these networks have become involved in numerous illicit activities, including money laundering for drug cartels and gunrunning.
The individuals comprising these networks are usually Lebanese or Iranian nationals holding a local passport from the Latin American country where they reside. Their companies are locally registered and not subject to any sanctions regime. They have no difficulty buying directly from the U.S., including, potentially, dual-use technology—such as commercial drones, some of whose components could be repurposed for military projects. A direct flight from Caracas would help deliver these goods to Iran.
Third and lastly, the credibility of U.S. sanctions is at stake. Mahan Air has been under U.S. sanctions since 2011. It has decades of experience evading sanctions on behalf of Iran’s regime. It helped transport military equipment to Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in the early stages of his ruthless repression of Syria’s initially peaceful Arab Spring. But by the summer of 2015, with Assad almost overrun by rebels, Mahan became the backbone of Iran’s airlift of military equipment and trained Shi’a militias to Damascus.
Had it not been for that airlift, it is doubtful the Assad regime would have won the civil war and reasserted itself. Assad was able to get away with gassing his citizens, murdering 500,000 people, and displacing half of his country. He owes much of that to Mahan Air.
Very much like with Assad, Iran does not want to see Maduro go—Caracas, after all, has become, since the early 2000s, Iran’s forward operating base in Latin America. Mahan, with its experience, can deliver this result.
That is especially the case because, alone among Iranian commercial airlines, Mahan has the long-range aircraft capable of flying the distance between Iran and Venezuela. Mahan Air procured the aircraft in May 2015, while the Obama administration was negotiating the Iran deal in Vienna with Iran’s regime. In a stunning undercover operation, Mahan arranged the simultaneous delivery of nine aircraft (including eight Airbus A340-642 planes) that month. U.S. sanctions designated only one of the deal’s mediators—a small Iraqi airline and its owner—and the aircraft. The planes kept flying, though, servicing European capitals until recently, when U.S. pressure led to the cancellation of those routes. (The aircraft still services China routes and may have been involved in bringing COVID-19 to Iran.)
To see these planes, five years later, crisscrossing the Atlantic on their way to Caracas, is proof-positive that U.S. sanctions bite only if properly enforced. The Obama administration sanctioned the aircraft procurement in May 2015 more because of the embarrassment it caused its negotiators than out of a real desire to wreak havoc to Mahan’s operations.
The Trump administration has already shown a willingness to reverse its predecessor’s inaction against Mahan Air, when it persuaded Germany, France, Italy, and Spain to cancel Mahan Air routes. It now has the opportunity to exert its leverage with allies and disrupt the Venezuela flights.
U.S. sanctions under Executive Order 13224—the legal vector utilized against Mahan Air—not only forbid U.S. persons from engaging in any type of transaction with and from providing assistance to the sanctioned airline. Non-U.S. persons too may incur penalties—such measures are referred to as secondary sanctions. Mahan aircraft traveling to and from Caracas fly over six countries—Armenia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal—before they reach the Atlantic Ocean. Each time an aircraft transits a country’s airspace, it needs to pay overflight fees. In recent days, they have also stopped over in Algiers on their way to (but not back from) Venezuela.
In the specific case of Iran’s flights to Venezuela, payments go through EuroControl, a centralized agency in charge of collecting payments for 41 member states, including all six countries (minus Algeria) whose airspace Mahan transits on its way to Venezuela. Payments are in euros, once a month, by credit card or bank wire transfer. This type of service could arguably qualify as a violation of U.S. secondary sanctions.
To be sure, these are not large payments—fees may be in the range of a few thousand euros per round trip. Still, while the price tag is small, if EuroControl member states closed their airspace to Venezuela-bound Iranian aircraft, Mahan would likely be unable to reach its destination without a technical stopover.
Here is why. A Mahan Airbus 340-642’s maximum range is 14,450 kilometers, or 7,800 nautical miles. The distance between Tehran’s international airport and Caracas is 6,358 nautical miles. To get to Las Piedras airport, in Paraguana, Mahan Air needs to fly an extra 90 nautical miles. That leaves 1,400 miles in the fuel tanks. But if Mahan flight routes were stretched in order to bypass airspace restrictions, its planes cannot reach their destination.
With EuroControl member states’ airspace shut, Mahan aircraft would have to take a lengthy detour, which would put them out of range of Caracas. Its planes would have to find a midpoint—likely in West Africa—to make a refueling stopover. They would become vulnerable to U.S. forfeiture action and, especially on their way back, would likely risk inspection, making their mysterious cargo on the journey back vulnerable.
There is a lot at stake for the Trump administration if Iran’s airlift to Venezuela continues unimpeded. The president should remind allies and friends that letting Mahan aircraft slip through their airspace—much like letting their aircraft land in their airports—is not just a violation of U.S. sanctions subject to penalties. It is bad policy. Venezuela needs all the help the international community can muster—but not at the price of keeping a criminal regime in power. Washington should stop those flights.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
Photograph by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.