Category: Zachary Leshin

The Hezb'allah Threat in the Tri-Border Area


The Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, also referred to as the Triple Frontier, is host to significant activity by various terrorist groups and criminal organizations.  One of them is the Shia jihadist group Hezb’allah, which has used the region for fundraising and training, and as a means by which to carry out attacks in South America.

The Tri-Border Area forms at the convergence of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers.  It covers an area of roughly 965 square miles and is surrounded by jungle.  In includes the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, and the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú.

The Tri-Border Area is attractive to terrorist groups and criminal organizations for a number of reasons.  In the period between 1971 and 2001, the population of the Tri-Border Area grew from 60,000 to 700,000.  The construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant was an important driver of this growth.  Such rapid population growth in the region contributed to a lack of infrastructure needed to regulate the high degree of increased commercial activity and border crossings, which has made the area significantly more difficult for law enforcement to police.

The Tri-Border Area has a large Arab population.  Estimates of the Arab population in the region range from 20,000 to 30,000, with most residing in Foz do Iguaçu, as well as a large number in Ciudad del Este.  About 90 percent of that population is of Lebanese origin.  The Arab community in the region is tightly knit and has its own schools and clubs.  This makes it difficult for law enforcement to penetrate the community, which makes the region an ideal operations base for Arabic-speaking terrorist or criminal groups.

The surrounding jungle provides another reason to make the region appealing to terrorist groups and criminal organizations.  As jungles are difficult to penetrate, they are a good place for groups to hide bases, training camps, drug plantations, laboratories, and clandestine runways.  An example of this is how the Amazon has been used to shelter dozens of runways and the Paraná River has been used regularly for illicit traffic. 

In addition to the conditions that make the region attractive to criminal organizations and terrorist groups in general, there are reasons why it has attracted Hezb’allah specifically.  One reason is the relationship between Hezb’allah and the Iranian government.  In 1982, the Iranian government held a meeting in Tehran where its officials decided that they would use proxy terrorist groups to export their revolution abroad and use Iranian embassies and Shia mosques to facilitate that goal.  Several months after that meeting, Mohsen Rabbani was sent by the Iranian regime to Argentina as a commercial attaché.  Rabbani’s public reason for being there was to inspect livestock, but the covert reason was to promote an Iranian-backed presence in the area.

Hezb’allah’s presence in the Tri-Border Area dates back to the 1980s, when it first established logistical and financial cells in the region.  Hezb’allah has utilized its presence in the region as a means of fundraising.  A 2005 Paraguayan intelligence report reported that approximately 20 million dollars are collected in the region each year to finance Hezb’allah and Hamas.  A major portion of the money transfers in the region are done through informal value transfer systems, such as the hawala system, rather than by a standard wire transfer.  As such, they are difficult for law enforcement to trace.

Hezb’allah has also been involved in various activities as a means of fundraising.  One of these is the sale of counterfeit products including pirated software, music, and films.  Remittances have all been used as a means to mask contributions to terrorism.  According to the former head of United States Southern Command, Gen. John F. Kelly, the Lebanese Shia diaspora in the Tri-Border Area “may generate as much as tens of millions of dollars for Hezbollah through both licit and illicit means.” 

Hezb’allah has also been smuggling weapons to Brazilian criminal gangs.  Hezb’allah has been providing the Brazilian gang First Capital Command (PCC) with weapons while also acting as an intermediary in the sale of explosives that the PCC had stolen from Paraguay.  In exchange for this, the PCC offers protection in Brazil’s prisons for inmates of Lebanese origin.

Hezb’allah has been heavily involved in the narcotics trade in the region, including smuggling cocaine.  In June 2017, a Lebanese Paraguayan man with ties to Hezb’allah named Ali Issa Chamas was arrested in the Tri-Border Area for drug-trafficking after being caught at Ciudad del Este’s international airport trying to smuggle 39 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside 27 boxes of plastic wrap to the United States.

In addition to fundraising to help carry out terrorist attacks abroad, Hezb’allah has also used the Tri-Border Area as a means by which to carry out attacks within South America.  The first example of this was on March 17, 1992, when a car bomb exploded in front of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242.  Hezb’allah identified the attack as retaliation for the death of its leader, Abbas al-Musawi, who had been killed a month prior in an attack by the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon.

On July 18, 1994, Hezb’allah carried out another bombing in Buenos Aires, this time against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building.  The attack caused the deaths of 85 people and the injury of 151 people, as well as substantial property damage.  Several calls were made via pay phones in the vicinity of the AMIA building on the day of the attack placed to a single cell phone subscriber located in Foz do Iguaçu in the Brazilian portion of the Tri-Border Area.

Additional evidence suggested that Foz do Iguaçu may have been used as a base of operations for preparing the attacks.  Samuel Salman el-Reda, a Lebanese-Colombian man who was the logistics coordinator for both the Israeli embassy bombing and the AMIA bombing, owned a house in Foz do Iguaçu.  He lived there until the AMIA bombing, at which point he fled to Lebanon.

Hezb’allah has used its presence in the Tri-Border Area to engage in terrorist attacks and to carry out fundraising activities, including by illicit means, to carry out terrorist attacks abroad.  The group has maintained a presence in this region since the 1980s and remains a security threat to this very day.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in foreign policy.  He recently graduated with a Master’s in statecraft and national security from the Institute of World Politics.

The Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, also referred to as the Triple Frontier, is host to significant activity by various terrorist groups and criminal organizations.  One of them is the Shia jihadist group Hezb’allah, which has used the region for fundraising and training, and as a means by which to carry out attacks in South America.

The Tri-Border Area forms at the convergence of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers.  It covers an area of roughly 965 square miles and is surrounded by jungle.  In includes the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, and the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú.

The Tri-Border Area is attractive to terrorist groups and criminal organizations for a number of reasons.  In the period between 1971 and 2001, the population of the Tri-Border Area grew from 60,000 to 700,000.  The construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant was an important driver of this growth.  Such rapid population growth in the region contributed to a lack of infrastructure needed to regulate the high degree of increased commercial activity and border crossings, which has made the area significantly more difficult for law enforcement to police.

The Tri-Border Area has a large Arab population.  Estimates of the Arab population in the region range from 20,000 to 30,000, with most residing in Foz do Iguaçu, as well as a large number in Ciudad del Este.  About 90 percent of that population is of Lebanese origin.  The Arab community in the region is tightly knit and has its own schools and clubs.  This makes it difficult for law enforcement to penetrate the community, which makes the region an ideal operations base for Arabic-speaking terrorist or criminal groups.

The surrounding jungle provides another reason to make the region appealing to terrorist groups and criminal organizations.  As jungles are difficult to penetrate, they are a good place for groups to hide bases, training camps, drug plantations, laboratories, and clandestine runways.  An example of this is how the Amazon has been used to shelter dozens of runways and the Paraná River has been used regularly for illicit traffic. 

In addition to the conditions that make the region attractive to criminal organizations and terrorist groups in general, there are reasons why it has attracted Hezb’allah specifically.  One reason is the relationship between Hezb’allah and the Iranian government.  In 1982, the Iranian government held a meeting in Tehran where its officials decided that they would use proxy terrorist groups to export their revolution abroad and use Iranian embassies and Shia mosques to facilitate that goal.  Several months after that meeting, Mohsen Rabbani was sent by the Iranian regime to Argentina as a commercial attaché.  Rabbani’s public reason for being there was to inspect livestock, but the covert reason was to promote an Iranian-backed presence in the area.

Hezb’allah’s presence in the Tri-Border Area dates back to the 1980s, when it first established logistical and financial cells in the region.  Hezb’allah has utilized its presence in the region as a means of fundraising.  A 2005 Paraguayan intelligence report reported that approximately 20 million dollars are collected in the region each year to finance Hezb’allah and Hamas.  A major portion of the money transfers in the region are done through informal value transfer systems, such as the hawala system, rather than by a standard wire transfer.  As such, they are difficult for law enforcement to trace.

Hezb’allah has also been involved in various activities as a means of fundraising.  One of these is the sale of counterfeit products including pirated software, music, and films.  Remittances have all been used as a means to mask contributions to terrorism.  According to the former head of United States Southern Command, Gen. John F. Kelly, the Lebanese Shia diaspora in the Tri-Border Area “may generate as much as tens of millions of dollars for Hezbollah through both licit and illicit means.” 

Hezb’allah has also been smuggling weapons to Brazilian criminal gangs.  Hezb’allah has been providing the Brazilian gang First Capital Command (PCC) with weapons while also acting as an intermediary in the sale of explosives that the PCC had stolen from Paraguay.  In exchange for this, the PCC offers protection in Brazil’s prisons for inmates of Lebanese origin.

Hezb’allah has been heavily involved in the narcotics trade in the region, including smuggling cocaine.  In June 2017, a Lebanese Paraguayan man with ties to Hezb’allah named Ali Issa Chamas was arrested in the Tri-Border Area for drug-trafficking after being caught at Ciudad del Este’s international airport trying to smuggle 39 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside 27 boxes of plastic wrap to the United States.

In addition to fundraising to help carry out terrorist attacks abroad, Hezb’allah has also used the Tri-Border Area as a means by which to carry out attacks within South America.  The first example of this was on March 17, 1992, when a car bomb exploded in front of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242.  Hezb’allah identified the attack as retaliation for the death of its leader, Abbas al-Musawi, who had been killed a month prior in an attack by the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon.

On July 18, 1994, Hezb’allah carried out another bombing in Buenos Aires, this time against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building.  The attack caused the deaths of 85 people and the injury of 151 people, as well as substantial property damage.  Several calls were made via pay phones in the vicinity of the AMIA building on the day of the attack placed to a single cell phone subscriber located in Foz do Iguaçu in the Brazilian portion of the Tri-Border Area.

Additional evidence suggested that Foz do Iguaçu may have been used as a base of operations for preparing the attacks.  Samuel Salman el-Reda, a Lebanese-Colombian man who was the logistics coordinator for both the Israeli embassy bombing and the AMIA bombing, owned a house in Foz do Iguaçu.  He lived there until the AMIA bombing, at which point he fled to Lebanon.

Hezb’allah has used its presence in the Tri-Border Area to engage in terrorist attacks and to carry out fundraising activities, including by illicit means, to carry out terrorist attacks abroad.  The group has maintained a presence in this region since the 1980s and remains a security threat to this very day.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in foreign policy.  He recently graduated with a Master’s in statecraft and national security from the Institute of World Politics.



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America Should Support Indian Claims on Jammu and Kashmir


The dispute between India and Pakistan over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir has gone on for many years. With a government in India that is more open to close relations with the United States, as well as continuing problems with the United States-Pakistan relationship, now is an excellent opportunity for recognition of Indian claims over Jammu and Kashmir by the United States, which has the potential to help strengthen the United States-India relationship.

The history of the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir dates back to the partition of India in 1947. Initially, the maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had considered declaring independence. That option was scrapped after attacks by Pakistani raiders and the maharaja was granted armed assistance from the Indian government. The maharaja decided that Jammu and Kashmir should be part of India and ceded authority over defense, communications, and foreign affairs to the Indian government.­­

The war between India and Pakistan ended on January 1, 1949, when the United Nations arranged a ceasefire. An armistice line formed where the fighting had stopped and that line has largely marked the zone of control since. In addition to the general dispute, there have been several hot conflicts in the region since the ceasefire was signed in 1949. This includes the Kargil War, which resulted from Pakistan’s view that it could probe and eventually dominate India through small scale operations under a nuclear umbrella.

Historically, there have been issues with the relationship between the United States and India. During the Cold War, India had close ties with the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon’s support for Pakistan during their conflict with India in 1971 harmed relations with India. While President Ronald Reagan sought to mend relations with India in the 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had hostile views towards the United States and these efforts did not lead to many results.

After the Cold War, there were attempts to strengthen ties between the United States and India during the administration of President Bill Clinton. These attempts had several setbacks. One setback was the Clinton administration’s policy of nuclear nonproliferation, which sought to eliminate nuclear weapons globally, including in India. Another setback occurred when Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robin Raphel questioned the legitimacy of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 in response to a question from an Indian reporter at the National Press club in Washington, DC.

Relations with India improved somewhat under the administration of President George W. Bush because he shifted the non-proliferation strategy towards India since India’s nuclear capability did not threaten the interests of the United States and acted as a counterweight to China’s nuclear weapons program.

Since the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India in 2014, United States-India relations have improved substantially. Examples of areas where relations have improved include civil nuclear energy cooperation, upgrading defense cooperation, and arriving at a common understanding of various international issues. The overall increasing ties between India and the United States present an opportunity to increase those ties further.

In contrast to India becoming more open to close relations with the United States, America’s relations with Pakistan have been strained. Pakistan’s military hiding Osama bin Laden has been a source of tension within the United States-Pakistan relationship and is a sign that it would be in United States interests to shift towards a more pro-India position. Pakistan’s assistance towards the covert nuclear weapons of nations such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea has also caused tensions with the United States.

Pakistan has also been forging a closer relationship with China. The $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which is being built as part of China’s ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ initiative, would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean via the Pakistani port of Gwadar. India has expressed concern about this since the road goes through the Pakistani occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s growing ties with China present another common threat that both India and the United States share concerns about.

India also has the stronger claim under international law. Under the principle of uti possidetis iuris, emerging states presumptively inherit their pre-independence administrative boundaries. As a result the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir’s decision to integrate into India, this means that the full territory of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India, even though Pakistan may be occupying a large portion of it.

Recognizing Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir would be a component of soft power. Soft power is a form of power projection that convinces others to do what you want without the use of resources by using attraction, unlike hard power which uses resources to engage in methods such as coercion or payments. Doing this would mean that there is a higher likelihood that India would support some of our foreign policy goals than they otherwise would.

Relations between India and the United States have been improving in recent years, but there is still room for further improvement. American recognition of Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir is one step that can further strengthen that relationship.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in foreign policy.

The dispute between India and Pakistan over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir has gone on for many years. With a government in India that is more open to close relations with the United States, as well as continuing problems with the United States-Pakistan relationship, now is an excellent opportunity for recognition of Indian claims over Jammu and Kashmir by the United States, which has the potential to help strengthen the United States-India relationship.

The history of the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir dates back to the partition of India in 1947. Initially, the maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had considered declaring independence. That option was scrapped after attacks by Pakistani raiders and the maharaja was granted armed assistance from the Indian government. The maharaja decided that Jammu and Kashmir should be part of India and ceded authority over defense, communications, and foreign affairs to the Indian government.­­

The war between India and Pakistan ended on January 1, 1949, when the United Nations arranged a ceasefire. An armistice line formed where the fighting had stopped and that line has largely marked the zone of control since. In addition to the general dispute, there have been several hot conflicts in the region since the ceasefire was signed in 1949. This includes the Kargil War, which resulted from Pakistan’s view that it could probe and eventually dominate India through small scale operations under a nuclear umbrella.

Historically, there have been issues with the relationship between the United States and India. During the Cold War, India had close ties with the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon’s support for Pakistan during their conflict with India in 1971 harmed relations with India. While President Ronald Reagan sought to mend relations with India in the 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had hostile views towards the United States and these efforts did not lead to many results.

After the Cold War, there were attempts to strengthen ties between the United States and India during the administration of President Bill Clinton. These attempts had several setbacks. One setback was the Clinton administration’s policy of nuclear nonproliferation, which sought to eliminate nuclear weapons globally, including in India. Another setback occurred when Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robin Raphel questioned the legitimacy of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 in response to a question from an Indian reporter at the National Press club in Washington, DC.

Relations with India improved somewhat under the administration of President George W. Bush because he shifted the non-proliferation strategy towards India since India’s nuclear capability did not threaten the interests of the United States and acted as a counterweight to China’s nuclear weapons program.

Since the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India in 2014, United States-India relations have improved substantially. Examples of areas where relations have improved include civil nuclear energy cooperation, upgrading defense cooperation, and arriving at a common understanding of various international issues. The overall increasing ties between India and the United States present an opportunity to increase those ties further.

In contrast to India becoming more open to close relations with the United States, America’s relations with Pakistan have been strained. Pakistan’s military hiding Osama bin Laden has been a source of tension within the United States-Pakistan relationship and is a sign that it would be in United States interests to shift towards a more pro-India position. Pakistan’s assistance towards the covert nuclear weapons of nations such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea has also caused tensions with the United States.

Pakistan has also been forging a closer relationship with China. The $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which is being built as part of China’s ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ initiative, would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean via the Pakistani port of Gwadar. India has expressed concern about this since the road goes through the Pakistani occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s growing ties with China present another common threat that both India and the United States share concerns about.

India also has the stronger claim under international law. Under the principle of uti possidetis iuris, emerging states presumptively inherit their pre-independence administrative boundaries. As a result the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir’s decision to integrate into India, this means that the full territory of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India, even though Pakistan may be occupying a large portion of it.

Recognizing Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir would be a component of soft power. Soft power is a form of power projection that convinces others to do what you want without the use of resources by using attraction, unlike hard power which uses resources to engage in methods such as coercion or payments. Doing this would mean that there is a higher likelihood that India would support some of our foreign policy goals than they otherwise would.

Relations between India and the United States have been improving in recent years, but there is still room for further improvement. American recognition of Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir is one step that can further strengthen that relationship.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in foreign policy.



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America Should Impose Stricter Aircraft Sanctions on Iran


With Iran continuing to be a state sponsor of terror and continuing the development of nuclear weapons, it is imperative that the United States impose stricter sanctions upon Iran in an effort to place more pressure on the Iranian regime. One underutilized method of achieving this is to prohibit airlines that fly to the U.S. from flying to Iran or code-sharing with airlines that fly to Iran. To prevent Iran from building up its own air fleet to circumvent these sanctions, it will also be necessary to prohibit the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in 2015 travel and tourism generated 294,428 billion Iranian rials (about $9.13 billion) for Iran’s economy, which was 2.5 percent of Iran’s GDP. The total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP (including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts) generated 793,457 billion Iranian rials (about $24.49 billion) in 2015, which was 6.7 percent of Iran’s GDP. If international tourists need to book multiple flights to get to Iran, many of them will choose other destinations which are easier to access.

Commercial flights to Iran impact more than tourism revenue. They also make it easier to attract foreign direct investment. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2015 Iran received $2.05 billion in foreign direct investment inflows. Ease of travel makes it easier for potential investors to visit Iran and for Iranians to visit potential investors and establish business relationships. Making this travel more difficult will add another barrier to market entry and either reduce the level of foreign direct investment or reduce its rate of growth.

Commercial flights to Iran also ship a significant amount of cargo. According to the World Bank, in 2015 Iran received 107.185 million ton-kilometer of goods shipped via air cargo. Reducing the availability of shipping cargo by air would increase Iran’s dependency on shipping by sea.

Iran could reduce the impact of flight sanctions by building up its own aircraft fleet. To prevent that from occurring, it is also necessary to prevent the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran. The bulk of Iran’s air fleet consists of aging U.S.-made aircraft built prior to the revolution in 1979. In September 2016, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued licenses authorizing Airbus to sell 17 aircraft to Iran Air, the airline owned by the Iranian government. In November 2016, Airbus received licenses from OFAC authorizing the sale of 106 additional aircraft to Iran Air. Airbus requires licenses from OFAC in order to sell aircraft to Iran since 10 percent of its parts are made in the U.S. OFAC also issued licenses authorizing Boeing to sell 80 aircraft to Iran Air. It is imperative that these licenses be revoked before either of these firms can make delivery of any of the aircraft to Iran. This is an action that can be taken by the Trump administration without the need for authorization from Congress.

The economic impact of selling aircraft to Iran Air is not the only issue. In a July 2016 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ed Royce discussed Iran’s use of commercial aircraft in support of terrorism. He noted that in 2011, the Treasury Department stated that “Iran Air has shipped military-related equipment on behalf of the IRGC since 2006, and in 2008, Iran Air shipped aircraft-related raw materials to a Ministry of Defense-associated company, including titanium sheets, which have dual-use military applications and can be used in support of advanced weapons programs.” During that same hearing, Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that such behavior continues and that in June 2016, “three Iran Air flights went from the IRGC’s resupply base in Iran to Damascus.”

In addition to OFAC withdrawing the licenses to sell aircraft to Iran, there are also actions that Congress can take. In February 2017, Congressman Pete Roskam, along with Leonard Lance, Lee Zeldin, and Doug Lamborn, introduced H.R. 808, the Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017. Sections 105, 106, and 107 of the bill deal specifically with sanctions related to aircraft.

Section 105 of the Act discusses sanctions against Mahan Air, an airline which is owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It calls for the imposition of sanctions against any person who provides goods, services, technology, or financial services to Mahan Air or any of its agents or affiliates, manages or is on the board of directors of or any of its agents or affiliates, or entities who own more than a 25 percent interest. The specific sanctions imposed include the blocking of property in the U.S. or in the possession or control of a United States person and the denial of visas to enter the U.S.

Section 106 of the Act discusses further measures regarding Mahan Air. It requires the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, to submit to Congress a list of each entity that would be subject to the sanctions described in section 105 of the Act. Section 107 of the Act discusses requiring the President to submit to Congress a report that contains “a description of all efforts the Department of State has made to encourage other countries to prohibit the use of air space and airports by Iranian air carriers.”

Stronger aircraft sanctions will exert additional pressure upon Iran. Combined with other measures, these sanctions will hopefully damage Iran’s economy to the point where it will be less able to fund terrorist acts and fund the development of nuclear weapons capabilities than they are currently.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in Middle East policy.

With Iran continuing to be a state sponsor of terror and continuing the development of nuclear weapons, it is imperative that the United States impose stricter sanctions upon Iran in an effort to place more pressure on the Iranian regime. One underutilized method of achieving this is to prohibit airlines that fly to the U.S. from flying to Iran or code-sharing with airlines that fly to Iran. To prevent Iran from building up its own air fleet to circumvent these sanctions, it will also be necessary to prohibit the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in 2015 travel and tourism generated 294,428 billion Iranian rials (about $9.13 billion) for Iran’s economy, which was 2.5 percent of Iran’s GDP. The total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP (including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts) generated 793,457 billion Iranian rials (about $24.49 billion) in 2015, which was 6.7 percent of Iran’s GDP. If international tourists need to book multiple flights to get to Iran, many of them will choose other destinations which are easier to access.

Commercial flights to Iran impact more than tourism revenue. They also make it easier to attract foreign direct investment. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2015 Iran received $2.05 billion in foreign direct investment inflows. Ease of travel makes it easier for potential investors to visit Iran and for Iranians to visit potential investors and establish business relationships. Making this travel more difficult will add another barrier to market entry and either reduce the level of foreign direct investment or reduce its rate of growth.

Commercial flights to Iran also ship a significant amount of cargo. According to the World Bank, in 2015 Iran received 107.185 million ton-kilometer of goods shipped via air cargo. Reducing the availability of shipping cargo by air would increase Iran’s dependency on shipping by sea.

Iran could reduce the impact of flight sanctions by building up its own aircraft fleet. To prevent that from occurring, it is also necessary to prevent the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran. The bulk of Iran’s air fleet consists of aging U.S.-made aircraft built prior to the revolution in 1979. In September 2016, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued licenses authorizing Airbus to sell 17 aircraft to Iran Air, the airline owned by the Iranian government. In November 2016, Airbus received licenses from OFAC authorizing the sale of 106 additional aircraft to Iran Air. Airbus requires licenses from OFAC in order to sell aircraft to Iran since 10 percent of its parts are made in the U.S. OFAC also issued licenses authorizing Boeing to sell 80 aircraft to Iran Air. It is imperative that these licenses be revoked before either of these firms can make delivery of any of the aircraft to Iran. This is an action that can be taken by the Trump administration without the need for authorization from Congress.

The economic impact of selling aircraft to Iran Air is not the only issue. In a July 2016 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ed Royce discussed Iran’s use of commercial aircraft in support of terrorism. He noted that in 2011, the Treasury Department stated that “Iran Air has shipped military-related equipment on behalf of the IRGC since 2006, and in 2008, Iran Air shipped aircraft-related raw materials to a Ministry of Defense-associated company, including titanium sheets, which have dual-use military applications and can be used in support of advanced weapons programs.” During that same hearing, Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that such behavior continues and that in June 2016, “three Iran Air flights went from the IRGC’s resupply base in Iran to Damascus.”

In addition to OFAC withdrawing the licenses to sell aircraft to Iran, there are also actions that Congress can take. In February 2017, Congressman Pete Roskam, along with Leonard Lance, Lee Zeldin, and Doug Lamborn, introduced H.R. 808, the Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017. Sections 105, 106, and 107 of the bill deal specifically with sanctions related to aircraft.

Section 105 of the Act discusses sanctions against Mahan Air, an airline which is owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It calls for the imposition of sanctions against any person who provides goods, services, technology, or financial services to Mahan Air or any of its agents or affiliates, manages or is on the board of directors of or any of its agents or affiliates, or entities who own more than a 25 percent interest. The specific sanctions imposed include the blocking of property in the U.S. or in the possession or control of a United States person and the denial of visas to enter the U.S.

Section 106 of the Act discusses further measures regarding Mahan Air. It requires the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, to submit to Congress a list of each entity that would be subject to the sanctions described in section 105 of the Act. Section 107 of the Act discusses requiring the President to submit to Congress a report that contains “a description of all efforts the Department of State has made to encourage other countries to prohibit the use of air space and airports by Iranian air carriers.”

Stronger aircraft sanctions will exert additional pressure upon Iran. Combined with other measures, these sanctions will hopefully damage Iran’s economy to the point where it will be less able to fund terrorist acts and fund the development of nuclear weapons capabilities than they are currently.

Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in Middle East policy.



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