Foundation For Defense of Democracies Policy Brief 5/11/2022


May 11, 2022 | Policy Brief


Emanuele Ottolenghi | Senior Fellow


The U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline Qeshm Fars Air has flown to Moscow at least seven times since mid-April after having made that trip only twice last year, according to the flight tracking service FlightRadar24. The airline’s sudden uptick in cargo flights to Moscow may reflect Iranian efforts to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Qeshm Fars Air in 2019 for being operated by the already sanctioned Iranian carrier Mahan Air and for carrying weapons and fighters to Syria on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is also under U.S. sanctions. Qeshm Fars Air continues to fly the Tehran-Damascus route on behalf of the IRGC, helping the Guard sustain its military presence in Syria and supply advanced weaponry to Iran’s proxy terrorist group in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Qeshm Fars Air’s illicit activity likely goes beyond Syria. It has also regularly traveled to Venezuela in the past two years, likely ferrying Iranian weapons and helping Tehran and Caracas evade U.S. sanctions. During the conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and Tigray rebels, Qeshm Fars Air aircraft flew to Addis Ababa at least seven times from June to December 2021, alongside Pouya Air, another U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline. In the past two months, Qeshm Fars Air cargo has also regularly landed in New Delhi, Macau, Myanmar, and Tajikistan. Reports suggest that in at least some of these instances, Iran is using the airline either to transport military equipment or to help partners evade sanctions.

Qeshm Fars Air’s flights to Moscow may fit into this pattern. The first recorded flight occurred on April 15, three days after The Guardian reported that Iran had transferred rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems, and surface-to-air missile systems to Russia by ship through the Caspian Sea. The Qeshm Fars Air cargo aircraft in question (registration: EP-FAA), can carry up to 250 tons of cargo, depending on the flight’s distance. Supplies of weapon systems and parts could help Russia replace some of its extensive battlefield losses as Western sanctions hamper Russia’s ability to produce weapons domestically.

Qeshm Fars Air could also be helping transport Syrian mercenaries to Russia, especially considering that the airline’s flights to and from Damascus are ongoing. The Pentagon confirmed in early March that Moscow has sought to recruit fighters from Syria to help compensate for Russia’s shortage of manpower in Ukraine. Alternatively, Iran could be assisting Russia in its reported transfer of forces and equipment currently deployed in Syria for use in Ukraine.

While it remains unclear what exactly Qeshm Fars Air is ferrying to Russia, the uptick in flights raises concerns that the IRGC may be assisting Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine, where the Russian military has committed mass atrocities. If proven, this would offer an additional reason not to remove the IRGC from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The U.S intelligence community should closely watch the increased freighter air traffic between Tehran and Moscow to determine the exact nature of the cargo transported.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Emanuele, the Iran Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Emanuele on Twitter @eottolenghi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research organization focused on national security and foreign policy.