The Ukrainian State Border Guard seized anti-tank missile components, reportedly the AT-4 Spigot, destined for Iran on Jan. 19. The weapons were concealed in the cargo section of a UM Airlines flight from Kiev to Tehran. Ukraine deserves praise for capturing the illicit cargo, but Kiev continues to let Iran use its aviation sector to evade a U.N.-implemented sanctioned international arms embargo and Western sanctions.
Banned Iranian carriers like Caspian Airlines and Mahan Air continue to benefit from close cooperation with Ukrainian airlines, and Kiev's failure to enforce U.S. sanctions against Iran should loom large as the Trump administration reviews 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.
None of these private companies is under U.S. sanctions, but Ukraine's fleet caters to sanctioned entities, too. Data show that 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.
Air Khors has also leased a Boeing 737 to Naft Airlines, which is being operated by U.S.-sanctioned Caspian Airlines. Treasury also slapped sanctions on two more Ukrainian airlines for assisting Mahan Air: Bukovyna Airlines and UM Airlines, which was carrying the missile parts seized last week.
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.
It also enables Mahan to officially enter the Ukrainian market.
Rather than concealing a partnership that Washington has sanctioned since 2013, Kiev and Tehran actually announced it with pomp, with the inaugural Mahan flight to Kiev welcomed by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Oleh Barna, a senior member of the Ukrainian parliament and ally of current President Petro Poroshenko. Also in attendance were Eugene Dykhne, acting head of Kiev's Boryspil International Airport; the Iranian ambassador to Kiev; and Mahan Air's managing director for international relations.
This is further evidence that the lack of U.S. sanctions enforcement under the Obama administration greatly eroded U.S. credibility and deterrence. Yushchenko, after all, led a pro-Western government in Kiev from 2005 to 2010.
The current government, so well-represented at the ceremony, is clamoring for more U.S. military assistance and a tougher Western stance in its current predicament against Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Yet, it sees no contradiction between its demands for Western support and its deepening partnership with Iran's sanctioned aviation sector.
Merhej boasted this summer about the increasing popularity of the Kiev-Tehran route. "The occupancy is increasing every day. We have about 75 passengers per flight today," he said. "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.
Last week's seizure of weapons shows that UM Airlines has not stopped its illicit activity with Mahan Airlines, and that this illicit activity has only increased since the initial designations by Treasury. Given the airlines' record of illicit activity, its increased business partnership is a major red flag.
The question remains whether last week's weapons seizure was just the tip of the iceberg in illicit activity facilitated by UM and Mahan Airlines. Since its conflict erupted in 2014, Ukraine has become a "supermarket" for the illicit arms trade — a platform that Iran could 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.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations and a Russia analyst. Follow Ottolenghi and Zilberman on Twitter @eottolenghi and @rolltidebmz.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.