National Security

How Russia and Iran Utilize Civilian Aircraft to Ferry Weapons

Iran uses civilian airlines to ferry weapons into Lebanon, confirmed a recent report by Fox News. Militant group Hezbollah is a recipient of these trafficked weapons. While this setup has long been suspected, the report indicated that Western intelligence agencies noticed Iranian aircraft flying to Lebanon via irregular flight paths. In one such flight, a 747 took off from Iran on July 9 and stopped in Damascus, before continuing to Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut.

In another instance, a 747 departed from an Iranian airbase in Tehran on August 2 and flew directly to Beirut, taking an unusual northward flight path, likely to avoid Israeli radar. A Middle Eastern intelligence source claimed that Iran was smuggling advanced weapon parts for Hezbollah missile factories in Lebanon.

“The Iranians are trying to come up with new ways and routes to smuggle weapons from Iran to its allies in the Middle East, testing and defying the West’s abilities to track them down,” said the anonymous source.

Frustrated with Israeli air strikes foiling transfers of precision missiles to Hezbollah, Iran has taken to building missile factories in Lebanon. Here it assumes that Hezbollah’s potential for wreaking significant destruction on the Israeli home-front will deter Israel from bombing the factories.

In January, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Brigadier General Ronen Manelis contributed an op-ed to a Lebanese newspaper warning that Hezbollah’s newfound penchant for manufacturing missiles would lead to all-out war, and ultimately devastate the region.

“Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way,” wrote Manelis. “It’s no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch — Iran is here…Iran and Hezbollah are currently trying to build a precision missile factory.”

Reports last week also confirmed that Iran began building missile factories in the predominantly Shiite northern Iraq region, estimating that the long distance from Israel would afford Iran virtual immunity.

The presence of Iranian-controlled rockets in Iraq complicates Israel’s efforts to foil Iranian missile production, as the United States reportedly forbade the Jewish State from bombing any Iraq-based missile factories. According to a report on Israel’s public broadcaster KAN last week, the U.S. told Israel to “leave Iraq to us” after Israeli intelligence uncovered Iran’s efforts to manufacture missiles in Iraq back in June.

Despite the warnings, and the dozens of air-strikes that are attributed to the Israeli Air Force, Iran continues smuggling weapon parts to Lebanon. Iran’s decision to utilize civilian aircraft to ferry advanced missiles and manufacturing equipment mark another twist in the multi-year cat-and-mouse game between Iran and the West.

Using civilian airliners to transfer weapons brings with it several benefits as well as some disadvantages. For one, civilian aircraft are significantly harder to track than military jets, for the sheer volume of air traffic flying in and out of a single international airport dwarfs the relatively small amount of traffic emanating from military sites.

Iran has a few dozen air force bases. Tracking take-offs and landings of airplanes with the capacity to ferry heavy loads, such as missile shipments, is relatively simple for a Western intelligence service with a fleet of spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft.

However, civilian aircraft depart with significantly greater frequency, making it much harder for Israel and other nations to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

In addition, even if an intelligence service manages to identify a civilian airliner carrying weapons to Iran successfully, the task of separating the “dirty” cargo from the usual civilian load would still remain. Due to the airlines’ civilian veneer, a nation like Israel that seeks to bomb weapons shipments would have to be totally confident that the flight was carrying incriminating cargo before taking military action, due to the repercussions of attacking civilian aircraft.

Civilian planes also give Iran plausible deniability should the shipments be intercepted by a hostile entity.

However, using civilian aircraft as a cover for weapons shipments does provide increased opportunities for human intelligence collection due to the breach of operational security that accompanies such tactics.

Simply put, a civilian airport, such as Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, is staffed by civilians who have not undergone the extensive vetting and background checks that are the norm for military personnel. The “circle of knowledge” is wider, and civilian airport employees are not schooled in counterespionage tactics, making it easier to gather intelligence via human sources.

Iran’s use of passenger jets for weapons shipments is not new. While Iran is not believed to have formerly used this tactic with Lebanon, analysts have long noticed the Islamic Republic’s use of false flight numbers of unidentifiable aircraft to form an air shuttle bringing weapons, ammunition, and Shiite fighters from Iraq into Syria.

Research done by Syria expert Tobias Schneider pinpointed more than 1,000 such flights within the past two years alone. The jets usually followed the same flight path: departing from Tehran, the aircraft would stop over in the city of Abadan on the Iraq-Iran border to pick up weapons before heading to Damascus.

Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined Iran’s air-based weapons pipeline with Syria in an April 2017 speech before Congress’ House Financial Services Committee.

As explained by Ottolenghi, “Iran is using the airlifts to supply strategic ‘game-changing’ weapons to Hezbollah.

“Israel’s Air Force bombing raids against weapons convoys heading to Lebanon are a direct response to the increased flow of strategic arms from Syria to Lebanon — all facilitated by Iran. If delivered, these weapons would likely facilitate a future escalation along the Israel-Lebanon border and potentially lead to a third Lebanon war.”

According to the recent Fox News report, the weapons were transported by Iran’s Qeshm Fars Airlines. Iran also frequently used Iran Air and Mahan Air to send weapons to Syria, leading both companies to be sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2011. Since 2016 alone, Iran Air has flown 140 flights to Damascus, and Mahan has flown over 400.

The Treasury Department sanctioned Mahan Air again in May for the airline’s role in ferrying Iranian weapons to Syria and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Following the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that “countries and companies around the world should take note of the risks associated with granting landing rights and providing aviation services to the airlines used by Iran to export terrorism throughout the region.”

“The deceptive practices these airlines employ to illegally obtain services and U.S. goods is yet another example of the duplicitous ways in which the Iranian regime has operated,” Mnuchin said.

Further proof of Iran Air’s role in the Iranian airlift to Syria came to light in August 2017. War Reports, a website opposing the Iranian regime, posted photos of Afghani militiamen (who are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) on their way to Syria aboard an Iran Air flight, surrounded by weapons and ammunition.

For especially sensitive weapons transfers, Iran uses Pouya Air, an aviation company sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for being partly owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. In April 2017, Israel reportedly bombed a shipment of advanced weapons that were intended for Hezbollah at a warehouse near Damascus International Airport. Shortly after the attack, an unnamed intelligence officer, who was presumed to be Israeli, told Reuters that the weapons were transported in a Pouya Air Il-76 that had landed half an hour before the airstrike.

Russia has also utilized civilian airlines to transport weapons and troops into Syria, ever since becoming heavily involved in the Syrian Civil War back in 2012. A Reuters report in April provided a rare window into tactics used by Russia to avoid international attention regarding its meddling in the Middle East.

The expose outlined how Russia operated a secret military airlift that sent tens of thousands of mercenaries, special forces, and weapons into Syria through Boeing 747s that were purchased and sent to Russia through a thicket of holding companies, making it impossible to trace the airline’s real owner.

The flights would take off from the Russian city of Rostov, and were operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline that was slapped with sanctions by the United States in 2016 for trafficking weapons to the al-Assad regime. The flights would always depart at night and would use phony flight numbers to avoid detection.

Unlike Iran, which utilizes civilian airlines mainly to avoid interference from Israel, Russia is believed to use non-military systems of transport to avoid scrutiny from within Russia. Disguising its weapon shipments and force buildups in Syria, where the average citizen does not understand the rationale for Russia’s military presence, is vital for the war effort to continue.

Iran’s new effort to smuggle advanced missiles to Lebanon using civilian airlines is just another tactic in the Islamic Republic’s relentless battle to encircle Israel. Along with Hamas’ arsenal in Gaza, Iran strives for a scenario in which a massive array of rockets targeting Israel’s home-front will deter the Jewish state from using force to dislodge Iran from Syria.

Currently, while the Iranian-backed Hezbollah possesses 150,000 rockets, it lacks missiles with pinpoint accuracy that could change the strategic balance in relation to Israel. Should the West fail to stop Iran’s latest gambit, the clock will start ticking towards an all-out war involving Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah facing off against Israel and possibly the United States.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Tzvi Lev

Sergeant Major Tzvi Lev served in the Israel Defense Forces in a counter terrorism unit and serves in a reserve special forces recon unit. He is fluent in Arabic and is studying towards his bachelor's degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies

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