According to Ottolenghi and Zilberman, anti-tank missile components, reportedly the AT-4 Spigot, destined for Iran were seized  by the Ukrainian State Border Guard on January 19. These weapons were concealed in the cargo hold of a UM Airlines flight from Kiev to Tehran. While Ukraine captured this illicit cargo, Kiev continues to allow Iran to evade a U.N.- implemented sanctioned international arms embargo and Western sanctions.

Iranian carriers like Caspian Airlines and Mahan Air are banned, but close cooperation with Ukrainian airlines, and Kiev’s failure to enforce U.S. sanctions against Iran, let’s them continue to benefit, and should become an important part of the Trump administration’s review of its foreign policy options toward Ukraine.

“The Iranian aviation sector’s reliance on Kiev is not new. Publicly available data from commercial flight trackers show that Dart Airlines is currently leasing aircraft to Iran’s privately owned Kish Air. Dart’s fleet is also frequently chartered for Iran and Lebanon routes by unknown operators. Iran Air Tours, ATA Airlines and Zagros Airlines, among others, also lease aircraft from Ukrainian operators,” write Ottolenghi and Zilberman.

These private companies are not under U.S. sanctions, but Ukraine’s fleet caters to sanctioned entities. One of Air Khors’s aircraft is currently leased to the Iraqi Al-Naser Airlines, which the U.S. Treasury sanctioned in May 2015 when the company fronted for Mahan Air, data shows.

Air Khors leased a Boeing 737 to Naft Airlines, which is being operated by U.S. sanctioned Caspian Airlines. 

Treasury has also slapped sanctions on two other Ukrainian airlines for assisting Mahan Air, Bukovyna Airlines, as well as UM Airlines, which was carrying the missile parts seized last week.

Lebanese businessman Rodrigue Merhej, UM airlines chairman, is also under U.S. Treasury sanctions since 2013 for their support of Mahan Air. The January 19 flight was a scheduled flight.

 Ottolenghi and Silberman say that, “Since last year, there are daily flights between Kiev and Tehran, including a weekly Mahan flight that commenced last March, when Mahan and UM announced an expanded partnership. Their cooperation connects Kiev to Mahan’s Asian destinations through Tehran, giving Ukrainian passengers a convenient connecting hub to Asia.”  “They add, It also enables Mahan to officially enter the Ukrainian market.”

This partnership, that Washington has sanctioned since 2013, was announced by Kiev and Tehran, with the inaugural Mahan flight to Kiev welcomed by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and senior member of the Ukrainian parliament and ally of current President Petro Poroshenko, Oleh Barna. Eugene Dykhne, acting head of Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport; the Iranian ambassador to Kiev; and Mahan Air’s managing director for international relations, also attended.

The lack of U.S. sanctions enforcement under the Obama administration undermined U.S. credibility and deterrence. 

Although the current government is requesting more U.S. military assistance and a tougher Western stance in its current struggle against Russia in Eastern Ukraine, it sees no contradiction between its desire for Western support and its partnership with Iran’s sanctioned aviation sector.

This past summer, Merhej boasted about the popularity of the Kiev-Tehran route. He said, ”The occupancy is increasing every day. We have about 75 passengers per flight today. Two months ago, it was 55 passengers. I am confident that we will reach 100 passengers by the end of June.”

“What Merhej failed to address is that UM Airlines, via its support of Mahan Airlines, has been involved in moving illicit cargo for the Syrian regime and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external arm, the Qods Force. The U.S. Treasury confirmed in 2013 that UM Airlines has trained Mahan Air pilots and engineers, and transferred airplanes to Mahan Air. UM has now been caught transferring weapons as well,” write Ottolenghi and Zilberman.

The seizure of weapons last week shows that UM Airlines has not stopped its illicit activity with Mahan Airlines, and that this activity has increased since the initial designations by Treasury. This is a major red flag.

Was last week’s weapons seizure was just the tip of the iceberg in illicit activity facilitated by UM and Mahan Airlines? Ottolenghi and Zilberman say that since conflict erupted in 2014, Ukraine has become a “supermarket” for the illicit arms trade, one that Iran can easily exploit through its direct air connection to Kiev.

“Authorities in Ukraine should be commended for seizing the weapons shipment, but when Kiev asks the United States for economic and military assistance, the least it can do is prevent sanctioned entities such as UM and Mahan Airlines to operate from its soil,” conclude Ottolenghi and Zilberman.