Iran and Venezuela strike new economic deals.
This strengthened alliance has enabled Iran to resume "aeroterrorist" flights to Latin America. Iran can transport illicit goods and terrorists by using aircraft operated by allied nations. Such flights started in 2007, enabling Tehran to fuel its economy with drug money and transfer uranium for its program.
"The government stopped a Venezuelan aircraft sanctioned by the United States and detained the passports of five Iranian crew members," Argentine security minister Anibal Fernandez wrote on Twitter.
According to a confidential report reviewed by the Investigative Project on Terrorism which formed the basis of the seizure by Argentine authorities, "the cargo aircraft that landed in Buenos Aires had a very large crew with 21 members and has been spending lengthy periods of time on the ground at almost each stop it made since its first maiden flight on February 11."
The Boeing 747 is owned by Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the national Venezuelan airline, Conviasa. This aircraft is the only one Emtrasur operates. The plane was sold a year ago by Iran's Mahan Airlines, which denies current ownership and is on a U.S. blacklist "for providing financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)."
The Quds Force is an IRGC military intelligence division. The United States designated it as a terrorist group "for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations."
Argentine authorities seized the aircraft, which was supposed to carry automotive parts, fearing that it concealed weapons or terrorists.
Since cargo stops usually are short and carry small crews, suspicion was raised that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were traveling as a crew, as Fernandez confirmed.
"In particular the name of the captain, Gholamreza Ghasemi, matches that of a retired IRGC commander who is a board member of Qeshm Fars Air with ties to the Quds Force," Fernandez told local Radio Perfil.
While the United States sanctioned Qeshm Fars Air in 2019 for allegedly shipping weapons to Syria, anti-regime Iranian media reported that Ghasemi was involved in at least one Iranian arms transfer case to Lebanon's Hizballah in the summer of 2018.
The confidential report revealed that Emtrasur's cargo plane left Minsk, Belarus in February, and flew from Asia to Latin America, Russia and Cuba. Media reports indicated it carried medical supplies, including 2.5 million influenza shots, from China to Venezuela via Nicaragua.
"The aircraft drew attention during a previous stop in Paraguay, in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, when it flew there (with no cargo), stayed three nights, took consignment of 80 tons of cigarettes, and then flew out to Aruba," the report said.
The Paraguayan-made cigarettes were from Tabacalera del Este S.A., the major supplier of the illicit cigarette trade in the Western Hemisphere. It is owned by former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, who enabled Hizballah to smuggle his cigarettes into the region. Cartes' bank has been investigated for money laundering activities and used by U.S.-designated Hizballah fundraisers such as Mohammed Fayez Barakat.
The illicit tobacco trade had become a key revenue source for Hizballah, particularly in Latin America. The Venezuelan aircraft, which according to the confidential report, often flew without transponders to avoid being detected by radar, in its trip to Paraguay seemed to be used to smuggle cigarettes.
According to Fernandez, Ghasemi, who also traveled to Paraguay, is a relative of Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by the Argentine Justice Department for his role as a Quds commander in planning the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
The perpetrators were never caught.
"Are people with links to AMIA ideologues returning to Argentina?" opposition deputies Ricardo López Murphy and Gerardo Milman asked in a lawsuit against Argentine authorities accused of authorizing the landing while being aware of the risks.
The unhealed scar of the AMIA bombing, and dread of future attacks drove investigators to examine this Boeing flight's history, given the extensive history of criminal activity involving Iranian aircraft in Latin America.
The Venezuelan opposition claimed in 2010 that Iran had obtained mining rights to use Venezuelan uranium resources and that some samples were transported through Damascus from Caracas to Tehran on aeroterror flights. They were operated by Venezuela in collaboration with Iran Air between 2007 and 2010.
These planes were never filled with tourists as Venezuelan authorities claimed when they inaugurated the route. In contrast, they would reportedly leave Caracas each week loaded with narcotics destined for Syria and cash and return from Iran and Syria with guns, IRGC and Hizballah and Hamas operatives, and other Iranian intelligence agents.
To conceal their identity, the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus provided the terrorists with real Venezuelan passports. Ghazi Nasseraddine, the then-commercial attaché and a known Hizballah member with Venezuelan citizenship, was in charge of the operation.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents reportedly dubbed the scheme "aeroterror."
Concerns are mounting that Iranian aircraft disguised as Venezuelan may again fly around Latin America to transport weapons, surveillance drones, and even uranium.
Furthermore, the United States claimed that Iran used Mahan Air in 2020 for shipments to Venezuela to boost energy production for President Nicolas Maduro's government and evade U.S. sanctions.
During his visit to Tehran to sign the cooperation agreement, Maduro announced the launch of a weekly passengers flight route between Caracas and Tehran without providing details.
Venezuelan Vice Minister of Air Transport Ramón Velázquez, the president of Conviasa, anticipated in February that while cargo flights have occurred between the two nations for the last three years Venezuela wanted attract tourists.
"Venezuela is a strategic destination for Iran and tourism is going to have big importance, above all else," Velázquez said.
However, it is hard to believe that these two countries, whose economies are ravaged by dictatorships, are focused on tourism instead of using the planes to spread their regimes' terror and making an end-run around international economic sanctions.
Latin American authorities need to be alert in identifying and seizing Iran-tied planes. The more Iran can skirt sanctions and transport terrorists to the region, the greater the chances are for more deadly attacks like the AMIA bombing.
Maria Zuppello is an Italian investigative reporter based in Brazil and an expert on the crime-terror nexus. She is the author of the book Tropical Jihad.
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