CEO of Iranian Airline to Buy Boeing Jets Has Ties to IRGC

CEO of Iranian Airline to Buy Boeing Jets Has Ties to IRGC
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Boeing announced last month it would sell 30 B737 Max aircraft to Aseman Airlines –Iran’s third-largest carrier – in a deal valued at around $3 billion. The deal appears to be permitted under the 2015 nuclear agreement, which lifted U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s aviation sector. There is, however, a problem: Aseman’s CEO, Hossein Alaei, is a decades-long senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, which remains under U.S. sanctions.

Since 1979, Alaei has held senior positions in the IRGC’s military establishment. He joined the Guard shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution and quickly rose to be commander of IRGC forces in two northwestern provinces. In the 1980s, he commanded the Karbala Garrison in the southern front during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1985, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini appointed him commander of the newly established IRGC Navy. Under his leadership, it began using high-speed boats and mines to target commercial and military vessels during the so-called Tanker War with Iraq.

Like his ideological peers, Alaei openly voiced his desire to confront America. In 1987, during the Tanker War, he warned of having “drawn up plans to utilize all our military capability to destroy the U.S. fleet and solve the Persian Gulf issue once and forever.” It did not quite turn out that way, but not for want of trying. Under his command, the IRGC Navy targeted U.S.-owned commercial vessels and Navy vessels, on one occasion injuring U.S. sailors.

Direct confrontation with the U.S. proved costly for Iran, but Alaei nevertheless rose higher still. After the war, he became chairman of the IRGC’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Guard’s third-highest position at the time. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was deputy minister at the U.S.-sanctioned Ministry of Defense.

While at the ministry, Alaei became director of the Iran Aviation Industries Organization. In 2013, the Treasury Department added the organization to its Specially Designated Nationals list pursuant to Executive Order 13382, which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. The organization also manages other sanctioned entities, such as Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries, and closely collaborates with the Iran Aerospace Organization – itself under U.S. sanctions – the entity in charge of Tehran’s ballistic missile program. 

As deputy defense minister and the Iran Aviation Industries Organization’s director, Alaei likely oversaw Defense Ministry programs including the development of Iran’s air defense and ballistic missile program. Since leaving active duty as an IRGC commander, he has remained a lecturer in strategic studies at the U.S.-sanctioned Imam Hussein University, the IRGC’s equivalent of the National Defense University.

Alaei’s past affiliation with the IRGC is not proof that Aseman has any current association with the organization. But it does raise questions about whether that could be so. Moreover, those questions are troubling in light of Iran’s track record in the civil aviation sector. Put simply, the IRGC has routinely used commercial aircraft for military purposes, frequently violating civil aviation rules and safety procedures in the process. Iran, through the IRGC, has used civilian aircraft to prop up the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in its ruthless crackdown since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. At least four Iranian carriers (Iran Air, Mahan Air, Pouya Air and, since early April, Fars Qeshm Air) and two Syrian ones (Syrian Arab Airlines and Cham Wings) have been active in this area. And while we are aware of no evidence that Aseman’s planes have been deployed in Syria up to this point, like Iran Air it is government-owned through the Iran Civil Pension Fund and financially dependent on the government, which recently agreed to settle its $100-million debt for fuel charges to the National Iran Oil Company.

The U.S. should not sell any aircraft to Aseman until Iran stops using commercial airliners for its military airlifts to Syria. Otherwise, we cannot rule out the possibility that this Iranian airline might fly U.S.-made commercial airplanes to assist Tehran’s war machine in Syria.


Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow. Follow them on Twitter @eottolenghi and @SGhasseminejad

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