Emanuele Ottolenghi, Matthew Zweig: 'Aeroterror' is back in business -- Team Trump should end it now

Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez, and Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, established a direct air link between their capitals in 2007.

Once a week, Venezuela’s flagship airline, Conviasa, flew from Caracas to Tehran, making a stopover in Damascus. Chavez and Ahmadinejad reportedly nicknamed the flight "Aeroterror", and the moniker was well-deserved.

The flights reportedly transported weapons, drugs, money and agents until they came to a grinding halt around 2010. To this day, it is unclear why the flights stopped.

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Almost a decade later, Aeroterror is back.

On April 7, a plane took off from Tehran’s international airport and nearly 16 hours later, landed in Caracas. The plane belonged to Mahan Air, a private airline under U.S. sanctions since 2011 for supporting the terrorism of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Barely a week before the flight to Caracas, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, visited Lebanon and Syria, where he met with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and sought their support for his regime.

The Trump administration should put Aeroterror back out of business. Direct flights could become vital to the survival of the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas.

Mahan could ferry weapons and fighters to prop up Tehran’s beleaguered ally, while helping Maduro continue his transfers of illicitly plundered Venezuelan gold back to Iran.

But Washington can disrupt Tehran’s plans with well-designed sanctions, including the impounding of Mahan long-distance aircraft, which are few in number.

For years, Mahan found ways to evade U.S. sanctions. In May 2015, the airline even acquired seven Airbus A340-600s, right under the nose of Obama administration officials who were busy negotiating the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna at the time. That acquisition boosted Mahan Air’s ability to fly long-distance routes. One of those seven planes, with tail registration EP-MMR, is the aircraft that landed in Caracas on April 8.

The choice of Mahan Air for the flights from Tehran to Caracas is not surprising, given its experience ferrying weapons, advisors, and fighters to the Assad regime.

Mahan may also be feeling a financial squeeze, since sanctions pressure has dramatically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. Treasury targeted numerous companies Mahan relied on for ticket sales and other essential services., and U.S. diplomacy has persuaded Germany and France to shut down Mahan’s commercial flights in their jurisdictions, drastically reducing Iranian flights to Europe.

Besides, the Iranian civil aviation fleet has few carriers ready to operate the lengthy route to Caracas, which covers 6,350 nautical miles. Thanks to its procurement stunts in circumvention of U.S. sanctions, Mahan is currently the only Iranian carrier with a fleet of relatively young long-haul aircraft.

Still, its capabilities are limited. Only thirteen Mahan planes can fly non-stop to Caracas. A loss of aircraft, therefore, could derail its plans.

By working closely with allies, Washington can take Mahan’s aircraft out of circulation.

When Mahan procured seven A346s in May 2015, Treasury’s subsequent sanctions made it clear that the aircraft involved were subject to potential seizure and forfeiture.

Since those planes regularly touch down in countries friendly to the U.S., they are susceptible to being impounded. Based on data available from the commercial flight-tracking site FlightRadar24, the aircraft spotted in Caracas on April 8 has since flown to Kuala Lumpur, Milan (twice), Shanghai, and Dubai. On that same week, other Mahan A346s flew to Barcelona, Beirut, Delhi, Dubai, Guangzhou, Istanbul, and Milan.

Washington should seek cooperation from Italy, Spain and the United Arab Emirates in order to have Mahan aircraft impounded on arrival. Seizing any of these aircraft would substantially reduce Mahan Air’s ability to operate its commercial long distance routes, which are dependent on its small fleet of A340s.

Washington should also persuade countries along the Tehran-Caracas route to close their airspace to Mahan or at least drastically raise transit fees for the airline.

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To reach Caracas, Mahan’s aircraft need to fly over Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Although it is doubtful that Turkey would cooperate with Washington against the regimes in Tehran and Caracas, which Ankara has brazenly assisted in their past and current sanctions evasion efforts, the other four European countries might cooperate.

The Trump administration has not shied away from aggressive diplomacy to go after Mahan Air. It should redouble its efforts now to ensure that Tehran’s attempt to offer a lifeline to the Maduro regime fails completely.

Matthew Zweig is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.