The U.S. Justice Department said it is seeking to seize a mysterious Venezuelan-flagged cargo plane that has been grounded in Argentina since June, arguing that the plane was previously linked to a U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline with alleged ties to terrorist organizations.
“Today’s coordinated actions target the unlawful transfer of an Iranian cargo plane to a Venezuelan airline and the airline’s subsequent operation of that plane in violation of our rules,” Assistant Secretary of Export Enforcement Matthew S. Axelrod of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security said in a press release Tuesday. “We will continue to take significant and direct enforcement action against foreign airlines operating U.S.-origin aircraft in violation of U.S. export controls.”
The mysterious plane landed at Ezeiza International Airport in Argentina nearly two months ago, arriving with a crew of 14 Venezuelans and 5 Iranians. The plane was grounded two days later, and Argentinian federal police found material used for military cyber defense operations on board.
The cargo raised fears that the U.S.-made plane, which the Justice Department said was illegally transferred from U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air to Venezuela’s state-owned Emtrasur Air, could be a cover for Iranian intelligence operations in South America. The Justice Department alleges that Mahan Air has a history of supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force.
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The request comes after Argentinian media reported Monday that a federal judge allowed 12 of the plane’s 19 crewmembers to leave the country, while four Iranians and three Venezuelans were ordered to stay as the investigation continues. The pilot of the plane, Gholamreza Ghasemi, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and board member and manager of U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline Fars Air Qeshm, was among those ordered to stay in the country.
The Justice Department alleges that the plane was transferred from Mahan Air to Emtrasur around October 2021 without U.S. authorization, a violation of U.S. export control laws. More violations of export control laws occurred earlier this year, with the Justice Department alleging that the plane was transferred between Caracas, Venezuela, Tehran, Iran, and Moscow, Russia, without U.S. authorization.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate transactions that violate our sanctions and export laws,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in the press release. “Working with our partners across the globe, we will give no quarter to governments and state-sponsored entities looking to evade our sanctions and export control regimes in service of their malign activities.”
The request to seize the plane comes as fears grow that Iran may be gaining a greater foothold in Latin America, a troubling development as the Biden administration attempts to negotiate with the country to rekindle the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.
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Both Iran and Argentina applied for membership in the BRICS Group earlier this year, an international organization including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that cast itself as an alternative to Western alliances.
The mysterious plane’s landing in Argentina also comes after Iranian Vice President for Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezaee was an invited guest to the inaugural ceremony of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Rezaee is a former member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and is wanted in Argentina for allegedly masterminding the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires.
FBI Acting Assistant Director of Counterterrorism Kevin Vorndran said that the agency is seeking to hold Iran accountable for violations of U.S. sanctions and “malign activities” in places such as South America.
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“This seizure demonstrates the FBI’s persistence in using all of our tools to hold the Iranian Government and affiliated individuals and companies accountable when they violate U.S. laws,” Vorndran said in the press release. “The FBI, along with our international partners, will continue to seek out those individuals who contribute to the advancement of Iran’s malign activities and ensure they are brought to justice, regardless of where, or how, they attempt to hide.”