Mahan Air, Iran's second-largest airline, is probably the only airline in the world linked to terrorism.
The US Government has labeled Mahan Airlines a "sponsor of terrorism.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called it a "terrorist company" and US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortega has called for global sanctions against it because, in her view, Mahan Airlines "carry problematic weapons of mass destruction” and has recently caused the widespread outbreak of coronavirus because it failed to halt flights between Iran and China after the virus had been identified.
Mahan aircraft have been the chief means of transport for weapons and ammunition and for deploying members of the Revolutionary Guards to Syria during the country's years of civil war. Brigadier Nosratollah Hosseinipour of the Quds Force, the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that handles operations outside Iran, said in November 2019, "We are attacking the oppressors and defending the oppressed, and you should know that bringing forces to Syria was only possible using Mahan's latest aircraft because they could enter Damascus airport under enemy fire.”
Under international law, it is forbidden for passenger planes to carry weapons or military personnel, or for planes that transport such goods to be classified as passenger planes as a cover, because of the danger to civilian lives. According to the senior commander of the Quds Force, Mahan Airlines has carried out just this type of illegal activity to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the civil war.
Hosseinipour's remarks came about two months before the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, who was killed by US drones near Baghdad airport. Soleimani had sat on the board of trustees for the parent company of the airline, the Ali Ibn Abitaleb Molla Al- Movahedin Charitable Institution of Kerman Province. The institution owns 100 percent of Mahan Airlines shares.
The US embargo on Mahan Airlines was first imposed during the presidency of Barack Obama. At the time, the United States ranked the company as a sponsor of terrorism in Syria, and said that the airline had moved troops, ammunition, and weapons to Iraq and Lebanon, and, more recently, to Venezuela. For this reason, sanctions against Mahan continued while the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in place, although the US lifted sanctions on Iran Air during this time. And unlike other Iranian airlines, Mahan was unable to buy aircraft from Airbus and Boeing.
The Rafsanjani Connection
Mahan Airlines was established in 1992 during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It ran its first international flight a year later to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Its owner, Molla Al-Movahedin Charitable Institution, is run by Hossein Marashi, the cousin of Hashemi Rafsanjani's wife’s, the head of Rafsanjani’s office during his presidency, the former governor of Kerman, and the airline’s founder.
Several Kermani politicians sit on the Molla Al-Movahedin charity’s board of trustees, as did Soleimani, who was the commander of the Kerman Revolutionary Guards before becoming the Quds leader. The United States has not only categorized the IRGC's Quds Force as a foreign terrorist group, but also the entire military establishment of the IRGC. Any company or organization supporting the Quds Force automatically falls under sanctions.
Mahan Airlines was established when Hossein Marashi was governor of Kerman, and it was founded somewhat by chance. "There was a security problem in Kerman and I had to go there from Tehran as soon as possible, but I was delayed for 24 hours at Mehrabad Airport,” Marashi said. “From then, it remained in my mind that I should solve the problem by creating an independent airline for Kerman.
"One day I was sitting in my office when a friend from Dubai called and said that an Egyptian named Ebrahim Kamel had four planes and wanted to set up an airline in Iran and asked if I was willing to do this in Kerman. I agreed without hesitation. I immediately gave the necessary instructions to the head of Kerman airport, and the next day we sat down with the Egyptian side in the airport lounge and agreed to form a joint venture on a 50/50 basis. The entire negotiations lasted no longer than a quarter of an hour."
Hossein Marashi said that after they reached an agreement to establish an Egyptian-Iranian airline, "we were informed that the Iranian government had given several loans to the Egyptian government during the Shah's reign and that the Egyptian government was unable to repay the loans. Mr. Kamel told us if we could get the agreement of the Iranian side, he might be able to agree with the Egyptian side to give these planes to Iran instead of them paying back the loan."
So, with the consent of the Iranian Ministry of Economic Affairs, the support of President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and using information supplied by Mohsen Nourbakhsh, the governor of the Central Bank, Egypt gave Iran four planes in exchange for its debt. This meant Iran was able to acquire the aircraft without any financial exchange, which would have been barred and illegal under US sanctions.
An Aging Fleet
Mahan Airlines currently has about 50 aircraft, and unconfirmed reports say it has leased one of its aircraft to a Syrian company. Although in some cases, the airline bypassed sanctions and was able to purchase more up-to-date aircraft or new parts, it has suffered several accidents in recent years because of its aging and outmoded fleet.
Despite Mahan Airlines being subject to US sanctions, until recently, flights to European cities continued. Under pressure from the United States, France, Germany, and Italy have refused to renew licenses for Mahan Air, and Britain, which five years ago had been preparing to allow Mahan Air to resume flights to its cities, has not yet issued the required permit.
A US State Department spokesperson has called on countries that allow Mahan planes to enter their airspace to retract such arrangements as soon as possible or risk facing US sanctions. In recent years, the United States has done its best to present Mahan Airlines as an unsafe option for civilian travel, and Iranian officials have not been convincing in their attempts to counter these claims, an uneasy task given the airline’s accident log.
Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, Mahan had regular flights to China, India, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, Ukraine, Greece, Armenia, Iraq, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates. Many of these are temporarily suspended due to the outbreak.