While Israel attacks shipments of Iranian arms to Syria and Lebanon, new information indicates that Mahan Air, a sanctioned airline continues transferring weapons across the region. 

While Israel attacks shipments of Iranian arms to Syria and Lebanon, new information indicates that Mahan Air, a sanctioned airline continues transferring weapons across the region. 

According to a report by Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday, the airline is pursuing its activities under cover of a travel agency with normal tickets. It presents itself as a privately-owned airline, established in 1991 by the son of then-Iranian President Akbar Rafsanjani and is headquartered at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. 

The company was sanctioned by the US in 2008 for links to the Quds (Qods) Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, but that does not prevent it from flying to multiple countries around the world, including frequent and worrisome flights from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. It is barred entry by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Canada, Japan, Germany and France, but it continues to fly to countries outside of the Middle East, including China.

Data disclosed by the Alma Research and Education Center, an Israeli defense watchdog that specializes in threats from Lebanon and Syria, indicate that Mahan Air serves as the Islamic Republic’s main cover for transporting sizeable quantities of weapons to its proxies across the region. 

“Ostensibly, Mahan Air transports passengers and cargo, and is the largest Iranian private airline. It operates under an umbrella organization, the supposedly civilian Mullah El Muvaadin Charity,” Tal Beeri of the Alma Center told Jewish News Syndicate on Wednesday. 

“The charity is in fact an economic mask for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), allowing it to operate legally and conduct its financial operations,” he said, adding that “Mahan Air operates as a civilian business, which is in actuality working as a full surrogate for Quds Force."

The Alma report also includes a list of the 63 Mahan Air pilots allegedly involved in the smuggling of weapons. “These pilots are not officially affiliated with the IRGC. However, it is highly likely that some of these are IRGC pilots that were loaned to the company. Other pilots who may not be of the IRGC are simply turning a blind eye,” said Beeri. 

According to Beeri, the company works closely with Quds Force Unit 190 -- assigned to the mission of arming Iran’s proxies -- with fake passenger names to Syria and Lebanon. “As of now, so far this year, Mahan Air flew to Damascus International Airport at least 110 times, and 39 times to Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri Airport. It flew at least 12 times to Syria’s Aleppo Airport,” he said.

Mahan Air has direct connections to two Iranian travel agencies, the main being known as Hamrah and the second as Utab Gasat, Beeri said, adding, “Between 2018 and 2021, some 60,000 plane tickets were booked with Mahan, with many of these tickets going to Hamrah. A look at passenger names reveals that despite tens of thousands of tickets being booked, there are no more than nine names that appear and reappear on the passenger list. Out of 2,000 tickets, just 15 passenger phone numbers appear.”

The Alma report concludes that “From this, it can be understood that Hamrah is, in fact, an executive body of the IRGC whose task is to coordinate and organize the transportation of equipment, weapons and operatives.” 

Also on Wednesday, Israel’s military chief of staff strongly suggested that Israel was behind a strike on a truck convoy in Syria last month, a rare glimpse into Israel’s shadow war against Iran and its proxies across the region. Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said Israeli military and intelligence capabilities made it possible to strike specific targets that pose a threat. 

“We could have not known a few weeks ago about the Syrian convoy passing from Iraq to Syria. We could have not known what was in it, and we could have not known that out of 25 trucks, that was the truck. Truck No. 8 is the truck with the weapons,” he told a conference at a university north of Tel Aviv. 

Earlier in the month, Israel threatened to bomb Beirut’s airport if it is used by the Iranian regime to smuggle weapons. London-based Asharq Al-Awsat quoted on Saturday some political sources in Tel Aviv as saying that Israel will not be lenient with the transport of Iranian weapons through Beirut airport, warning to launch military strikes if the airport is used for Iranian ammo deliveries. Last week, Al-Arabiya reported that Iran’s Meraj Airlines had begun conducting direct flights from Iran to the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

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