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Testimony

Increasing the Effectiveness of Non-Nuclear Sanctions Against Iran

Testimony for House Financial Services Monetary Policy and Trade, and Terrorism and Illicit Finance Subcommittees
4th April 2017

Download the full testimony here.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was implemented in January 2016 has emboldened Iran and given its leaders additional resources to pursue their regional hegemonic ambitions. In theory, under the JCPOA, the United States retains both the authority and leverage to counter Iran’s regional ambitions and ongoing support for terrorism, including through the use of non-nuclear sanctions. In practice, however, since the implementation of the JCPOA, this arsenal has been rarely used.

This is especially true with regards to Iran’s ongoing airlifts to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and to Hezbollah, Iran’s terror proxy in Lebanon. In fact, the JCPOA lifted decades of U.S. and international sanctions against Iran’s civil aviation sector exactly at a time when the sector became vital to Tehran’s war efforts in the Syrian theater. Put simply: Iran has devoted its commercial aviation sector to keeping Assad in power and Hezbollah armed to the teeth. The JCPOA, meanwhile, has made it legal to sell new aircraft to carriers that are complicit.

Iranian commercial carriers have been crisscrossing Iraqi airspace to deliver military support to Assad and Hezbollah since 2011, but they have increased their tempo since the summer of 2015, when Iran and Russia coordinated their efforts to save Assad’s regime from crumbling in Aleppo. Hundreds of flights, most of them operated by commercial airlines using civilian aircraft, have helped reverse the course of that war.

The Iranian aviation sector has exposed the inadequacy of the JCPOA caveat that licensed items and services must be used “exclusively for commercial passenger aviation.”[1] Currently, at least five Iranian and two Syrian commercial airlines are engaged in regular military airlifts to Damascus. They are:

  • Iran Air (Iranian, national carrier, de-sanctioned under the JCPOA)
  • Mahan Air (Iranian, privately owned, U.S. sanctioned)[2]
  • Pouya Air (Iranian, IRGC owned, U.S. sanctioned)[3]
  • Saha Airlines (Iranian, privately owned, not sanctioned)
  • Fars Air Qeshm (Iranian, privately owned, not sanctioned)
  • Cham Wings Airlines (Syrian, privately owned, U.S. sanctioned)[4]
  • Syrian Arab Airlines (Syrian, national carrier, U.S. sanctioned).[5]

The Department of Treasury cited collusion between Iranian commercial airlines and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in these military airlifts to Syria as a reason for its 2011 designations of Iran Air[6] and Mahan Air.[7] It also designated Syrian Arab Airlines in 2013[8] and Cham Wings in 2016[9] for transporting weapons and fighters to Syria. Clearly, these airlines are not ferrying civilian passengers between Tehran and Damascus.

The administration should suspend licensing for aircraft deals with Iranian commercial carriers while it conducts a thorough review of their role in the airlifts to Syria. The U.S. should proceed to revoke licenses and re-impose sanctions if that role were to be ascertained. But the only way to prevent U.S. manufacturers such as Boeing from supplying aircraft to Iranian entities involved in material support for terrorism is to rely on U.S. non-nuclear sanctions. While the United States cannot stop every plane, it can use sanctions to exact a heavy price on Iran’s aviation sector.

U.S. sanctions can also target providers of material support to the Syria airlifts, both inside and outside Iran. The U.S. should use these sanctions to communicate to Iran that its continuous support for Assad and Hezbollah comes with a cost, one that, especially in the case of aviation, could diminish the economic benefits Iran accrued from the nuclear deal.


[1] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Vienna, July 14, 2015, Annex II – Sanctions related commitments, section 5.1.1. (http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/annex_2_sanctions_related_commitments_en.pdf)

[2] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Designates Iranian Commercial Airline Linked to Iran’s Support for Terrorism,” October 12, 2011. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1322.aspx)

[3] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Targets Networks Linked to Iran,” August 29, 2014. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/pages/jl2618.aspx)

[4] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Sanctions Additional Individuals and Entities in Response to Continuing Violence in Syria,” December 23, 2016. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0690.aspx)

[5] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Increases Sanctions Against Syria,” May 16, 2013. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl1947.aspx)

[6] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Fact Sheet: Treasury Sanctions Major Iranian Commercial Entities,” June 23, 2011. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1217.aspx)

[7] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Designates Iranian Commercial Airline Linked to Iran’s Support for Terrorism,” October 12, 2011. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1322.aspx)

[8] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Increases Sanctions Against Syria,” May 16, 2013. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl1947.aspx)

[9] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Sanctions Additional Individuals and Entities in Response to Continuing Violence in Syria,” December 23, 2016. (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0690.aspx