US 'hijacking' Venezuelan aeroplane, Iran says

US 'hijacking' Venezuelan aeroplane, Iran says
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the United States' "unjust seizure" of the Venezuelan plane is illegal / CC: bne IntelliNews
By bne correspondent in Tehran & Beunos Aires February 13, 2024

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the United States' "unjust seizure" of the Venezuelan plane is illegal and violates the basic principles of the UN Charter and International law, ISNA reported on February 13.

The US Department of Justice on February 11 forfeited an American-built Boeing 747 cargo plane owned by a Venezuelan state-owned company on the ground that it was sold by Iran's Mahan Air in violation of US export control laws.

The 38-year-old aircraft was detained in Argentina for 18 months before Buenos Aires finally surrendered it to the US. The Justice Department said on February 11 that the plane had arrived in Florida and would be disposed of. The move by the new Milei administration to side with the US and release the plane indicates how committed the incumbent administration is to move closer to the US and Israel, which have stepped up efforts globally to track down Iranian-owned assets following ongoing attacks on US servicemen and Israel by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria with Iranian-made weapons. 

Kanaani described the move as "hijacking" and an instance of US unilateral coercive measures. He added that Iran strongly supports Venezuela in its legal and diplomatic efforts to restore ownership and access to its property.

Washington says the plane was formerly owned by Iranian airline Mahan Air, which it accuses of providing support for Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), designated by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

It was reportedly later sold to Venezuelan cargo airline Emtrasur, which had previously been sanctioned by the US.

That follows an Argentinian court official's announcement on 15 October that the five remaining crew members of the Venezuelan taken by Argentina in June were granted permission to leave the Latin American country.

Mahan Air, subject to US sanctions for years, has denied any connection to this aircraft despite operating the plane previously on official aviation registries.

According to the British High Court ruling against the UK-registered Balli Group, the airline took three 747-400s in 2008 from their owner, Armenian-owned Blue Sky Air, using forged bills of sale, the court documents reveal.

The US subsequently fined subsidiary Balli Aviation $2mn, which shut down a financial channel between the UK and Iran via the group's holding company. 

"According to count one of the criminal information filed with the court, beginning in at least October 2007, through July 2008, Balli Aviation Ltd. conspired to export three Boeing 747 aircraft from the United States to Iran without first having obtained the required export license from BIS or authorization from OFAC, in violation of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and the Iranian Transactions Regulations," the court ruling said. 

Specifically, the information states that Balli Aviation Ltd., through its subsidiaries, the Blue Sky Companies, purchased US-origin aircraft with financing obtained from an Iranian airline and caused these aircraft to be exported to Iran without obtaining the required US government licenses," it added.

The Venezuelan government has demanded the release of the aircraft, calling the transfer a “shameful rapacious operation”. It vowed in a statement to “take all actions to restore justice and achieve the restitution of the aircraft to its legitimate owner.”

Caracas has accused the US and Argentinian governments of collusion and violation of civil aeronautics regulations and the commercial, civil and political rights of Emtrasur.

The US Justice Department also alleges that the registered captain of the aircraft was a former IRGC commander. Citing Argentinian sources, the department says the aircraft has been reexported between Caracas, Tehran, and Moscow without US government authorisation after its transfer to Emtrasur, which is an additional violation of US export control laws.