Iran’s Top Airline Stays Busy Despite U.S. Sanctions

On October 29, one week before the U.S. imposed sweeping economic sanctions against Iran, flag carrier Iran Air dispatched 11 international flights. Two weeks later, a U.S. ban on the airline firmly in place, it flew 13—touching down in destinations including Paris, London, Hamburg and Doha.

The failure of sanctions to slow down Iran Air points to the challenge facing the Trump administration in its campaign to use international isolation to pressure Iran, Wall Street Journal reports.

The Trump administration on November 5 ramped up sanctions against Iran’s oil industry, financial system and key industries including shipping and aviation – and to make those measures stick, the U.S. has sought help in curtailing or halting the operations of key Iranian companies.

While the overall level of international compliance with U.S. sanctions may take time to gauge, the flight data provided by plane tracking website Flightradar24 offers an early indication: Few countries, if any, appear to be heeding the effort to effectively ground Iran Air, including Washington’s allies across the Atlantic.

The EU, which regulates flights to member nations, said neither its members nor the United Nations had imposed renewed sanctions against Iran Air or its planes. “Therefore we do not see any legal obstacles to Iran Air flights to the EU,” said a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

The root of the problem, for the Trump administration, is that Europe remains committed to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which removed sanctions in return for Tehran’s pledge to dial back its nuclear program. Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal this year.

The EU “does not recognize the extraterritorial application of U.S. sanctions” against Iran, the spokeswoman said. French aviation officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

U.S. officials warned that companies working with Iran Air put themselves at risk of punitive Treasury action.

“We think it’s irresponsible for any country to continue to allow any airline that’s operating at the behest of terrorists to continue to allow them to fly,” said Sigal Mandelker, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, referring to Iran’s elite militia, the Quds Force, which is designated by the U.S. as a terror group. “We’re going to continue to keep the pressure on.”

Iran Air didn’t respond to a request for comment. Iranian officials have denounced the sanctions as illegal under United Nations resolutions and have cited a ruling last month by the U.N.’s International Court of Justice that the U.S. must suspend sanctions because they hinder humanitarian commerce. The Trump administration says it isn’t bound by the ruling.

Iran’s flag carrier not only provides a critical commercial link for the country through its cargo shipments, but also connects its businessmen, diplomats and ordinary citizens with the rest of the world.

In hitting the airline, the U.S. was aiming to sever an artery of commerce and revenue for the country and its government—as well as to physically and psychologically isolate Tehran, the Journal adds.

The Trump administration triggered the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions by quitting the nuclear deal, launching a strategy meant to pressure Tehran into a new deal that prevents development of nuclear weapons, bans long-range missiles and curbs Tehran’s support for armed conflicts in the region.

The sanctions have heavily damaged Iran’s economy. Even before November 5, exports of Iran’s most important resource, oil, had fallen by more than a third, the nation’s currency plunged and many Western companies exited to avoid the pain of U.S. sanctions. Economists scratched out their previous forecasts for an expanding economy and scribbled in a two-year contraction.

Still, many governments, including U.S. allies, have vowed to try to keep trade and financial lifelines open in effort to prevent Tehran from pulling out of the 2015 accord.

The Iran Air issue represents a broader problem many sanctions experts warned the administration would face as it seeks to implement a maximum pressure campaign: getting other countries to comply with a policy many oppose, the Journal notes.

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