The US Department of Justice he said on Tuesday is seeking possession of a Venezuelan cargo plane that has been grounded in Argentina since early June because it was previously owned by an Iranian airline with alleged ties to terrorist groups.
The request to Argentina was revealed a day after an Argentine judge allowed 12 of the plane’s 19 crew members to leave the country as authorities continue to investigate possible terrorism links of those traveling on the Boeing 747. Federal judge Federico Villena said late Monday that the remaining four Iranians and three Venezuelans should stay.
The U.S. request sent to Argentina on Tuesday followed the unsealing of a warrant in the District of Columbia federal court issued last month that says the U.S.-made plane must be grounded for violations of U.S. export control laws. .
The plane, according to the Justice Department, was flown by the Iranian airline Mahan Air — which officials say provides support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force — to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of state-owned Consorcio Venezolano de Industrias Aeronáuticas y Servicios Venezuela. Aéreos, or CONVIASA. CONVIASA is under US sanctions.
By transferring the plane to the Venezuelan company in October without prior US government approval, Mahan Air violated a 2008 order issued by the Commerce Department that has since been periodically renewed, the US says. The Justice Department says Emtrasur then re-exported the plane between Caracas, Tehran and Moscow — also without US government approval.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate transactions that violate our sanctions and export laws,” said Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s national security division. he said in a statement. “Working with our partners around the world, we will give no quarter to governments and state entities that seek to evade our sanctions and export control regimes in the service of their nefarious activities.”
The moves marked the latest development in his saga mysterious planewhich landed on June 6 at Ezeiza International Airport outside Buenos Aires and landed two days later.
The case has drawn attention in several South American countries, as well as the United States and Israel, amid allegations that the aircraft was a cover for Iranian intelligence operations in the region. Iran and Venezuela categorically deny these claims.
The issue has drawn the attention of members of the US Congress. On July 26, twelve U.S. Republican senators wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland accusing the Justice Department of failing to assist Argentine authorities in the investigation into the Venezuelan plane.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., pressed Olsen on this in a hearing last week and lamented that, in his view, Iran was not getting the scrutiny it deserved. Olsen said he was aware of the case, but added, “This is an ongoing matter. I can’t talk about specifics.”
The US Commerce Department took its own action on Tuesday, announcing it was suspending Emtrasur’s export privileges for 180 days.
The Israeli government praised Argentina for downing the plane and claims that at least some of the Iranian crew members “were directly involved in arms trafficking to Syria and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah.”
Among those who will continue to be barred from leaving Argentina is the plane’s Iranian pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi.
Ghasemi is a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and is a shareholder and board member of Iran’s Qeshm Fars Air, which the US Treasury Department says is controlled by Mahan Air and provides material support to the Quds Force.
The other crew members required to remain in Argentina are Abdolbaset Mohammadim, Mohammad Khosraviaragh and Saeid Vali Zadeh from Iran and Mario Arraga, Víctor Pérez Gómez and José García Contreras from Venezuela.
“What is being investigated is whether, under the guise of legitimate activity, they are financing terrorist operations (specifically with Hezbollah) or whether they are part of a scheme that has ties to Hezbollah,” the judge wrote.
Villena stressed that links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are not under investigation because Argentina does not consider it a terrorist organization.
Mahan Air has denied any involvement with the plane, and Venezuela has asked Argentine authorities to release the plane.
But Argentine authorities investigating the plane found a Mahan Air flight log documenting the plane’s flights after it was transferred to Emtrasur, including a flight to Tehran in April, the Justice Department said.
The plane was carrying cargo for several Argentine auto parts companies that it unloaded in Mexico before stopping in Caracas and arriving in Argentina.
The plane is also under investigation in Paraguay, where the plane landed in May and spent three days in Ciudad del Este, near the border with Argentina, where it loaded cigarettes for transport to Aruba, according to Paraguayan authorities.
There are suspicions that the plane’s cargo was “a facade” that hid the real reason for his stay in Paraguay, says René Fernández, a former prosecutor who heads Paraguay’s National Anti-Corruption Secretariat.
Villena said the plane’s stop in Paraguay was “at least impressive” and added that further investigation was needed.
“This seizure demonstrates the FBI’s persistence in using all of our tools to hold the Iranian government and associated individuals and companies accountable when they violate US law,” said FBI Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Kevin Vordran.
This case is also being investigated by the Department of Commerce, the Miami Bureau of Industry and Security, and the FBI’s Miami Office.