Buenos Aires, Argentina
The US Department of Justice said on Tuesday it was seeking possession of a Venezuelan cargo plane that has been grounded in Argentina since early June because it previously belonged to an Iranian airline believed to have links to terrorist groups.
The request to Argentina came to light a day after an Argentinian judge cleared 12 of the plane’s 19 crew members to leave the country as authorities continue to investigate possible terrorist links of those who travel in the Boeing 747. Federal Judge Federico Villena said Monday night that the four remaining Iranians and three Venezuelans must stay.
The U.S. request sent to Argentina on Tuesday follows the unsealing of a warrant in federal court in the District of Columbia that was issued last month arguing that the U.S.-made plane should be confiscated in due to violations of US export control laws.
The plane, according to the Justice Ministry, was transferred from Iranian airline Mahan Air – which officials say provides support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force – to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state company Consorcio Venezolano de Industrias Aeronáuticas y Servicios Aéreos, or CONVIASA. CONVIASA is under US sanctions.
By transferring the plane to the Venezuelan carrier in October without prior US government approval, Mahan Air violated a 2008 order issued by the Department of Commerce that has since been periodically renewed, according to the United States. The Justice Department said Emtrasur then re-exported the plane between Caracas, Tehran and Moscow, also without US government approval.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate transactions that violate our sanctions and export laws,” Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement. “Working with our partners around the world, we will give no quarter to governments and state-sponsored entities that seek to evade our sanctions and export control regimes in service of their nefarious activities.”
The moves marked the latest development in the saga of the mysterious plane, which landed June 6 at Ezeiza International Airport near Buenos Aires and ran aground two days later.
The case has drawn attention in several South American countries as well as the United States and Israel amid allegations that the plane was used as a cover for Iranian intelligence operations in the region. Iran and Venezuela vehemently deny these claims.
The issue caught the attention of members of the US Congress. On July 26, a dozen Republican U.S. senators wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland accusing the Justice Department of failing to assist Argentine authorities in their investigation of the Venezuelan plane.
Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, pressed Olsen on the matter during a hearing last week and lamented that in his view Iran is not getting the scrutiny it deserves. Olsen said he was aware of the matter, but added, “It’s an ongoing matter. I can’t speak to specifics.”
The US Department of Commerce took its own action on Tuesday, announcing that it had suspended Emtrasur’s export privileges for 180 days.
The Israeli government has praised Argentina for grounding the plane and says at least some of the Iranian crew members ‘were directly involved in arms trafficking to Syria and the Hezbollah terrorist organization from Lebanon’ .
Among those who will continue to be banned from leaving Argentina is the plane’s Iranian pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi.
Ghasemi is a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is a shareholder and board member of Iran’s Qeshm Fars Air, which the US Treasury Department says is controlled by Mahan Air and provides material support to the Quds Force. .
Other crew members required to remain in Argentina are Abdolbaset Mohammadim, Mohammad Khosraviaragh and Saeid Vali Zadeh from Iran and Mario Arraga, Víctor Pérez Gómez and José García Contreras from Venezuela.
“What is being sought is if, under the guise of legal activity, they are financing terrorist operations (especially with Hezbollah) or if they are part of a plan that has links with” the Hezbollah, the judge wrote.
Villena stressed that links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are not being investigated because Argentina does not consider it a terrorist organization.
Mahan Air denied any connection to the aircraft and Venezuela demanded that Argentine authorities release the plane.
Still, Argentine authorities who searched the plane found a Mahan Air flight log documenting the plane’s flights after the transfer to Emtrasur, including a flight to Tehran in April, the Justice Ministry said.
The plane was carrying cargo for several Argentine auto parts companies which it loaded in Mexico before stopping in Caracas and arriving in Argentina.
The plane is also under investigation in Paraguay, where the plane landed in May and spent three days in Ciudad del Este, near the border with Argentina, where it loaded cigarettes to be transported in Aruba, according to the Paraguayan authorities.
It is suspected that the plane’s cargo was “a facade” that hid the real reason for his stay in Paraguay, said René Fernández, a former prosecutor who heads Paraguay’s National Anti-Corruption Secretariat.
Villena said the plane’s stopover in Paraguay was “at least striking” and added that further investigation was needed.
Tucker reported from Washington.