BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The US Justice Department said on Tuesday it 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 that reportedly has ties has with 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 terror links of those traveling in the Boeing 747. Federal judge Federico Villena said late Monday that the remaining four Iranians and three Venezuelans must stay.
The U.S. petition sent to Argentina on Tuesday followed the unsealing of an injunction in federal court in the District of Columbia issued last month claiming that the U.S.-made aircraft must be confiscated for violations of the law. US export control laws.
The plane was transferred from Iranian airline Mahan Air – which officials say supports the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned Consorcio Venezolano de Industrias Aeronáuticas y Servicios Aéreos, according to the Justice Ministry. , or CONVIASA. CONVIASA is under US sanctions.
By handing over the plane to the Venezuelan company in October without prior approval from the US government, Mahan Air has violated a 2008 Commerce Department order that has been periodically extended since then, the US said. The Justice Department says Emtrasur subsequently re-exported the plane between Caracas, Tehran and Moscow, also without permission from the US government.
“The Justice Department will not tolerate transactions that violate our sanctions and export laws,” Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said in a statement. “By working with our partners around the world, we will not give a dime to governments and state-sponsored entities seeking to circumvent our sanctions and export control regimes in the service of their malicious activities.”
The moves marked the latest development in the saga of the mysterious plane, which landed on June 6 at Ezeiza International Airport outside Buenos Aires and was grounded two days later.
The case has attracted attention in several South American countries, as well as the United States and Israel, amid allegations that the plane was a cover for Iranian intelligence operations in the region. Iran and Venezuela vehemently deny those claims.
The issue has caught the attention of members of the US Congress. On July 26, a dozen US Republican senators wrote a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland accusing the Justice Department of not helping Argentine authorities investigate the Venezuelan plane.
Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, urged Olsen at a hearing last week, complaining that Iran, he said, was not getting the attention it deserved. Olsen said he was aware of the matter but added: “This is an ongoing matter. I can’t talk about the details.”
The US Department of Commerce took action on Tuesday, announcing that it had suspended Emtrasur’s export privileges for 180 days.
The Israeli government has praised Argentina for grounding the plane, saying that at least some Iranian crew members were “directly involved in arms trafficking to Syria and the Hezbollah terrorist organization from Lebanon.”
Among those banned from leaving Argentina is the plane’s Iranian pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi.
Ghasemi is a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and is a shareholder and board member of Iran’s Qeshm Fars Air, which according to the US Treasury Department is controlled by Mahan Air and provides material support to the Quds Force.
The other crew members to remain in Argentina are Abdolbaset Mohammadim, Mohammad Khosraviaragh and Saeid Vali Zadeh of Iran and Mario Arraga, Víctor Pérez Gómez and José García Contreras of Venezuela.
“What is being investigated is whether they are financing terrorist operations (particularly with Hezbollah) on the pretense of legal activity or whether they are part of a plan linked to Hezbollah, the judge wrote.
Villena stressed that ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are not being investigated because Argentina does not consider it a terrorist organization.
Mahan Air has denied any links to the plane and Venezuela has demanded that Argentine authorities release the plane.
But Argentine authorities who searched the plane found a Mahan Air flight log showing the plane’s flights after its transfer to Emtrasur, including a flight to Tehran in April, the justice ministry said.
The plane was carrying cargo for several Argentine auto parts companies which it loaded in Mexico before stopping in Caracas and arriving in Argentina.
The plane is also under investigation in Paraguay, where it 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, said René Fernández, a former prosecutor who heads Paraguay’s National Anti-Corruption Secretariat.
Villena said the plane’s stopover in Paraguay was “at the very least striking” and added that further investigation was needed.
Tucker reported from Washington.