The Nuclear Negotiations Continue
Iran to Test US Sanctions Resolve by Air

A blacklisted Iranian airline has announced it’s going to start flying illegally-acquired planes internationally this week, setting up a crucial test of the U.S. sanctions regime as both nations approach a June 30 deadline in the nuclear negotiations. Reuters reports:

An Iranian airline that acquired nine passenger jets in defiance of U.S. sanctions will begin using them on international routes this week, the Fars news agency reported on Monday.

Mahan Air, which is blacklisted by Washington, acquired eight second-hand Airbus A340s and one Airbus A321 in early May. The U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on two firms based in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates on suspicion of helping the purchase.

The A340s will start flying from Tehran to Dubai and Istanbul within two days, and will later be used for long-haul journeys, Fars reported.

An announcement like this needs to be treated with some circumspection, as Fars is not exactly a model of probity in reporting. If this isn’t just a trial balloon, though (and we should know soon—within a day or two, according to the reports), and if the A340s do start flying internationally, our ability to compel or cajole uncertain allies, such as Turkey, to undertake the arduous and unrewarding task of seizing the planes, will be on trial before the world—at a moment when every sign from Washington has been that the Administration would like to lift the sanctions anyway within a matter of weeks.

To make matters more vexing, there will be colorable arguments at hand for those who wish to leave the Iranian jets alone. In the absence of new planes and parts, Iran has suffered significant civilian air disasters recently, as Reuters points out, notably the loss of 39 people aboard a locally-made plane in August 2014. How, one could argue, can America continue to enforce a ban on technology that could well save innocent civilian lives?

The hard truth is, our sanctions regime is not supposed to be a pleasant thing. It was designed as an alternative to war or other destructive measures that we judged worse than the sanctions themselves. It is supposed to be coercive, and it is supposed to cause hardship. Nor was the ban on airplanes some frittering detail or neglected footnote that can be safely overlooked. Air routes are vital arteries of modern commerce, and airliners are still matters of significant national prestige in most of the world. Our desire to control Iran strictly in this area can be seen by the care with which we took to tailor the limited relief we offered Iran during the negotiations period: “The long-standing ban on the sales of spare parts was eased under an interim nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in late 2013, but U.S. sanctions still restrict the sale of aircraft.”

If the U.S. is unable to uphold the sanctions in the face of the open, double provocation, our negotiating position vis-a-vis Iran will be holed below the waterline. Tehran would be justified in thinking that the international community’s will and/or ability to enforce the sanctions regime had already disappeared, and it could pick apart its fetters piecemeal without offering substantial concessions at all. (Tehran, after all, already sees itself on the march all over the Middle East, without suffering any major, adverse consequences from Washington).

And more broadly, one of our crucial tools for deterring violations of international peace short of violence will also be badly damaged, with follow-on effects around the world. It is darkly ironic that the airline in question coincidentally bears the name of the naval captain who alerted the U.S. to the vital importance of international sea routes when we stood on the brink of world power in the late 19th century. (Alfred Thayer Mahan; the airline is named after an Iranian city). Will this other Mahan illustrate we’ve lost our grip on international air routes—and, more largely, some of the sinews of the global system we’ve created since the captain’s time—in the beginning of 21st century?

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