The Obama administration announced new sanctions Thursday against Iraq’s Al-Naser Airlines, but not before Iran’s blacklisted Mahan Air had used the Iraqi company as a front to acquire several jetliners and even make a bold attempt to buy aircraft for sale in the United States.
The departments of Treasury and Commerce announced the actions against the Iraqi airline and a Syrian aviation executive for what they called efforts to subvert international sanctions against Mahan Air and aid the embattled Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
The agencies said that Al-Naser, whose ownership is murky, helped procure airplanes for Mahan Air, including eight Airbus A340 planes and one Airbus A320 aircraft.
Also sanctioned was Syrian businessman Issam Shammout and his firm, Sky Blue Bird Aviation, which is based in the United Arab Emirates.
Thursday’s action followed a report earlier this month by the Financial Times that detailed how Iran’s Mahan Air, blacklisted by the United States and Europe because of alleged links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was able to skirt sanctions and buy as many as 15 used aircraft worth more than $300 million.
The financial news website MENAFN, in an article posted Wednesday, quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying that his country alerted the United States about Iran’s plans to make the purchases, but that the deals went through anyway.
“We flagged the issue to the U.S. administration,” the official said, according to MENAFN. “Unfortunately, the deal still went through and there was no success in preventing it.”
But the Obama administration did block the export of two U.S.-based aircraft that Al-Naser attempted to purchase.
According to Thursday’s order, officers from the Office of Export Enforcement recently blocked the export of two Airbus A320s that had been purchased in February by Ali Abdullah Alhay, who owns 25 percent of Al-Naser. Money for the sale came from a Dubai-based company, Bahar Safwa General Trading, the order said.
“We stopped two airplanes. We disrupted millions of dollars in finance,” said one U.S. official familiar with the action.
The official asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of efforts to isolate Iranian companies. The U.S. has long used economic sanctions to pressure the Iranian government to drop its alleged support of terrorism and agree to limitations on its nuclear program.
Tail number and registration information for the blocked aircraft show that they were last flown by U.S. Airways, which in December 2013 merged with American Airlines. The aviation tracking website FlightAware.com said the last flight for each of the two Airbus A320s, which hold more than 300 passengers and are often used in trans-Pacific flights, was on Jan. 13, a short hop from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to Phoenix Goodyear airport.
The two blocked planes are registered to Delaware-based Wilmington Trust Co., which acts as a trustee for the real owners of the aircraft, whose identity has not been made public.
The Thursday actions mean that all property and interests tied to the Iraqi airline, its partial owner or the Syrian aviation magnate are frozen and U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with them.
Alhay has addresses in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. Details of the actual airline ownership are blurry. It apparently was owned first by the Al-Riyadh Investment Group, which belonged to the powerful Iraqi Al-Khawam family. The airline apparently was sold in 2014 to a foreign-exchange trader named Firas al-Mayyali, according to multiple reports on Iraqi-themed websites.
On its website, Baghdad-based Al-Naser Airlines said it mainly flies domestic routes, although it is listed in a bilateral aviation agreement with the United Kingdom as Iraq’s second carrier after flagship carrier Iraqi Airways.