The U.S. Can, and Should, Close Down Iran’s Air Corridor to Syria

March 5 2018

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.

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More about: Iran, Iran sanctions, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war