Deal or no deal, Trump should punish Iran’s aviation sector

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg announced last week the deferral until 2019 of the planned delivery of three Boeing 777’s to Iran Air, fueling speculation that Boeing’s $16.6 billion dollar deal with the Iranian national airline may be in jeopardy.

Critics of the Boeing deal insist the company should go further and cancel the deal outright. Yet it is not and should not be Boeing’s responsibility to formulate U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran. Rather, it is President Trump who should clarify that for as long as Tehran suborns its civil aviation sector to its reckless and criminal adventurism in the region, the full force of U.S. sanctions will stand in the way of its attempt to rejuvenate its fleet.

Instead, the president should evaluate aircraft sales to Iran on their merit, nuclear deal or no deal. The essential fact to consider is that Iranian commercial airlines have airlifted weapons and military personnel to Syria, fueling mass human rights violations and large-scale atrocities that include the use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets, ethnic cleansing, and the large-scale use of torture.

Among the culprits in the airlift is Iran Air, Iran’s main commercial airline and a major buyer of Boeing aircraft. As I have documented repeatedly in articles and Congressional testimony, the airline directly participated in the Tehran-orchestrated airlift, with more than 140 recorded flights to Damascus between January 2016 (when the JCPOA’s implementation began) and May 2017, when its scheduled flights to Syria suddenly went dark.

Mahan Air continues flying to this day, with 416 flights recorded since January 2016. So does Syria’s national carrier, along with a Syrian private airline (Cham Wings), an IRGC-owned airline (Pouya Air), and two Boeing 747s operated by the IRGC and the Iranian Air Force, totaling more than 1,500 flights by my count since the airlift began.

There is open-source evidence documenting these nefarious activities. Official Israeli sources have also confirmed that flights from Iran are carrying weapons and fighters to Syria’s fields of battle and supplying Hezbollah’s arsenals. Yet the Trump administration has yet to produce its own evidence, more than a year since it took office. It should not be too difficult — when the U.S. administration sought to make the case for tougher North Korea sanctions, it did not take long for the intelligence community to produce satellite imagery to back up White House policy. The issue is a lack of interest.

This hesitation is consistent with other aspects of U.S. policy toward Iran. If the administration wanted to hold Iranian airlines accountable for serving as Assad’s accomplices, it could have unleashed a torrent of secondary sanctions against foreign companies who do business with Iranian airlines already subject to sanctions.

Specifically, the administration could designate the firms who handle ticket sales, cargo sales, and general sales on behalf of sanctioned Iranian airlines in Europe, the Gulf and Asia. The sanctioned airlines also receive ground services in numerous airports — the firms who provide those services are vulnerable to U.S. secondary sanctions and could incur fines and other penalties.

In addition, the U.S. could target second-tier airports in Iran, such as Tehran’s Mehrabad, Abadan, Kerman and Yazd, which have served as departure points for the military airlift. The U.S. could also go after Iranian firms that provide insurance and fuel to these carriers. The administration has so far declined to take any of these measures, even though the nuclear deal in no way prohibits taking action against Assad’s enablers. The president’s relentless denunciation of the nuclear deal has created the impression that he is tough on Iran. His rhetoric has not always matched his policies.

No doubt, the uncertainty the White House has created around the nuclear agreement, has had a chilling effect on aircraft sales, with very few deliveries to report. Of the expected 200 aircraft Iran Air orderedsince the nuclear deal was implemented on January 16, 2016, the airline has only received three new Airbus planes and eight ATR planes so far.


The Iranians have also taken notice that expanding their commercial fleet with Western manufactured aircraft may never happen. On the same day Boeing publicized its delays, Aseman Airlines and Iran Air Tours, a subsidiary of Iran Air, announced an memoranda of understanding with Sukhoi, the Russian manufacturer.

Of course, the president’s indecision may end on May 12, if he effectively nixes the JCPOA by refusing to issue a new waiver on the enforcement of U.S. sanctions. Refusing to issue a new waiver means killing any prospect of Western aircraft sales to Iran — not just by Boeing, since Airbus depends on U.S. licenses too, and not just to Iran Air, since Boeing has negotiated deals with other Iranian airlines, too.

Yet, punishing Iran’s aviation sector, given its complicity in war crimes in Syria, should not have been dependent on whether president Trump keeps the deal. Deal or no deal, it is the right policy. Regardless of his final decision on the Iran deal, the president should unleash the full force of U.S. sanctions against Assad’s enablers.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.

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