Last week the Argentine authorities retained a Venezuelan-owned cargo plane, citing US sanctions on Iran. Five Iranian crewmembers and fourteen Venezuelans were onboard, official sources confirmed to IranWire, and among them was ex-IRGC commander Gholamreza Ghasemi together with several members of the Quds Force.
The plane, a Boeing 747-3B3(M) belonging to the Venezuelan company Emtrasur, landed on Monday, June 6 at the Cordoba airport. Later it flew covertly to the international airport in Ezeiza, a few kilometres from Buenos Aires, where police were waiting with information from intelligence sources.
The Airport Security Police, Argentine customs and immigration, and the federal police were all involved in stopping the plane and detaining its crew. The decision was based on Article 35 of the Argentine Migration Law, which allows for seizures in the event of "a well-founded suspicion that the real intention that motivates the entry differs from that manifested at the time of obtaining the visa or appearing before immigration control."
Local intelligence services had received a warning from Uruguay that the plane was heading to the neighbouring country. The authorities in Uruguay had not allowed the aircraft to land there due to the same US sanctions. Had this not happened, those in Argentina would have had no idea about the plane’s Iranian passengers.
Who Were the Iranians on Board?
The incident did not reach the press until Saturday, and only then thanks to a request for information by Argentine deputy Gerardo Milman. Of the plane with the registration code YV3531, he wrote: "Given the enigmatic behaviour of the flight, the confusing property of the aircraft and the composition of the crew, I ask my peers to accompany me in this project."
The same deputy filed a complaint against officials who participated in the operation at the airport. The plane, he noted, was able to successfully travel between Cordoba and Buenos Aires "with the transponder turned off as if it did not want to be located." The complaint involves:
José Glinskim, national director of the Airport Security Police;
María Florencia Carignano, national head of Immigration;
Paola Tamburelli, national Administrator of Civil Aviation;
Gabriela Logato, president of the Argentine Air Navigation Company;
Silvia Brunilda Traverso, general director of customs.
Because of the transponder being turned off, Milman wrote that he suspected the plane was part of “a deeper manoeuvre… [such as] route reconnaissance tests”. But, he told reporters, "It would be relevant for the security of Argentines to confirm, via fingerprints, all Iranian citizens who arrived on this flight to the country. It must be clarified what their intentions are in our territory, which is still quite confusing."
An Argentine journalist in Israel, Damián Pachter, then revealed the identities of the Iranian crew members through an article published in Israel Today: Mohammad Khosraviaragh, Ghomlareza Ghasemi, Mahadi Mouseli, Saeid Vali Zadeh and Abdolbaset Mohammadi.
Gholamreza Ghasemi was registered as the aircraft's captain. He is a shareholder and member of the board at the sanctioned Iranian airline Qeshm Fars Air. He was also previously chairman of Iran Naft Airlines, later renamed Karun, and is a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officer.
At least two of the other Iranian crew members are thought to have ties to the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, which apart from incursions into countries neighboring Iran is known for conducting terror attacks overseas. So far, the Argentine Airport Security Police have limited themselves to reporting that the plane "was transporting auto parts for an automotive company"; an Argentine official who took part in the operation said it “was in Paraguay 15 days ago and took a load of cigarettes to Aruba”.
The Retained Plane
The Venezuelan company Emtrasur is the owner of the Boeing 747 aircraft registered under the number YV3531. But it previously belonged to Mahan Air, anIranian carrier also sanctioned over the suspected trafficking of weapons. Interestingly, the transfer of the plane to the Venezuelan firm took place as part of a "tourism cooperation" deal signed in April 2019 between Caracas and Tehran.
The agreement's signatory on behalf of Venezuela was Stella Lugo Betancourt, appointed by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as his representative in Argentina. In other words, the plane is listed as part of a Venezuelan tourist fleet, but it performs unclear cargo functions. The Argentine journalist Ignacio Montes de Oca published on Twitter the document that proves the transfer.
On Sunday afternoon it was noticed that the Argentine lawyer Rafael Resnick Brenner had filed a habeas corpus before the federal court in Lomas de Zamora for the aircraft and all its crew, whose passports have been seized. Resnick Brenner is an ex-director of the Federal Public Revenue Agency (AFIP) during the infamously Tehran-sympathetic government of Cristina Kirchner, which also had good relations with Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro. He was involved in one of the most prominent corruption cases in Argentine history, known as the "Ciccone Case", and was ultimately fired from the Public Revenue Administration for extorting citizens.
Finally, in the early hours of this Monday, Judge Federico Villena rejected the habeas corpus - but granted the Iranians a permit to spend 15 days in Argentina or leave the country. The passports are still withheld on the basis that there are valid suspicions, but everything seems to indicate the Iranians will depart again shortly - on the same mysterious plane.