In 2011, American forces withdrew from Iraq while civil war broke out in Syria. As a result, Washington could not prevent Baghdad from allowing Iran to use its airspace to transport men and materiel to Bashar al-Assad. The scale of the airlift escalated rapidly in 2015 at the conclusion of the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. According to one expert’s estimates, Tehran has sent more than 250,000 people, mostly irregular troops, and 60,000 tons of supplies to Syria in the past two years. Emanuele Ottolenghi argues that the U.S. can use its economic power to shut down this air corridor:
Thanks to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [or JCPOA, as the nuclear agreement is formally known], three decades of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s civilian aviation came to an end. Tehran immediately went on a shopping spree to replace its aging commercial air fleet, signing numerous deals with Boeing and Airbus. . . . The United States could block almost all of these deals, which cannot proceed without export licenses from the Treasury Department. The JCPOA, after all, stated clearly that aircraft could be sold to Iran only if it was used exclusively for commercial aviation. Yet the deal contains a fatal flaw: an airline can use its old fleet for nefarious purposes, keep the new planes for commercial routes, and technically comply with the nuclear deal’s civil-aviation provisions. That’s why re-sanctioning Iran Air is a critical step toward blocking the sale of aircraft.
There is good reason to believe that canceling the deals would disrupt the air corridor, even though it has endured despite Iranian reliance on aging aircraft built in the 1980s and 1990s. The economic and political fallout of such a decision could be significant. With the nuclear deal hanging by a thread and the international business community anxiously awaiting President Trump’s May 12 decision about whether to pull out of it, credit lines to Tehran have been slow to materialize. The Airbus and Boeing deals, worth tens of billions of dollars, are the canary in the coal mine for Iran’s economy. If the deals go forward, they will signal to the global financial market that Iran is finally open for business. But if the Trump administration were to cancel them, it would kill Iranian prospects of real economic dividends from the deal, even if the JCPOA survives the May 12 deadline.
Put bluntly, no one would finance anything in Iran after the establishment of a precedent that companies and sectors delisted by the JCPOA could be re-sanctioned on different grounds—and [Iran’s] material support for the Syrian slaughter seems an eminently sound reason to do that.
Trump should make it clear that the United States will only approve the aircraft deals if Iran puts a stop to its illegal airlift of weapons and fighters to Syria. Iranian aircraft are sustaining Syria’s killing fields and setting the stage for escalation against Israel. Letting Iran buy Western-manufactured airplanes would be the clearest indication yet that the White House is powerless to disrupt Tehran’s inexorable path to war.