Mahan Air Berlin bans Iranian airline after EU slaps sanctions on Tehran

The German government rescinded the license of Iran's second-largest flight carrier, as Berlin investigates a suspected spy for Tehran.
Quelle: imago/Rüdiger Wölk
(Source: imago/Rüdiger Wölk)

Amid ongoing suspicions of Iranian terror in Europe, Germany has clamped down on Iranian activities. German aviation authorities revoked landing permission for Mahan Airlines amid concerns that Iran’s second-largest airline is used for military purposes and spying.

The decision was made based on suspicions that the airline serves the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and has been used in terror operations, a senior government official told Reuters. The step is in addition to EU sanctions on Iran but does not constitute sanctions in its own right. Official say it’s a unique move against a specific company.

The EU introduced sanctions on Iran at the start of the month following alleged plots to assassinate political opponents. They specifically target a unit of Iran’s intelligence agency and two individuals, freezing their financial assets and putting them on the EU terror list.

The EU move followed after the Dutch government said it had intelligence that Iran was involved in assassinations of Dutch nationals of Iranian origin in Almere in 2015 and the Hague in 2017. Both men were opponents of the Iranian government. 

Last October, France openly accused Iran of backing a plot to bomb a rally of political dissidents in Paris. Denmark has also claimed that Iran has tried to murder political opponents there.

Mahan had flown to Munich and Dusseldorf three times a week and Munich once a week. The airline was banned in the US in 2011, and has long urged allies to do likewise. The airline’s boss, Hamid Arabnejad, reportedly has close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

According to US officials, the airline has been used to fly fighters, weapons and ammunition to Syria in support of its government. The US treasury secretary has said that Mahan’s flights to Syria prop up the Assad regime.

In a news conference on Monday, a spokesman for the German government denied the decision to ban the airline was due to pressure from Washington, saying, “the German decision is based on considerations of our security needs.” He noted that the airline could be used to carry cargo that could threaten Germany's security, given Iran's record of terror in Europe.

Mahan has popped up on German political radars before – speculation first surfaced last year that Berlin was mulling rescinding its landing rights due to pressure from Washington. American officials have been critical of Europe’s decision to grant Mahan commercial flight rights in 2016, calling a ban an important, non-military way to block the airline’s financial network.

It’s also the second time Germany has censured Iran in as many weeks – it last week arrested an Afghan-German national, Abdul Hamid S., for acting as a spy for Iran while working for the German army. The translator has allegedly fed information to Iran for years.

Despite ongoing pressure from Washington, Brussels and Berlin have sought to maintain political, commercial and financial links with Tehran, as an incentive for Iran to stick to the nuclear deal of 2015, albeit with little success.

Germany’s decision to ban Mahan was greeted by senior US politicians and the embassy in Berlin, however it is not a sign that Germany will necessarily adopt Washington’s hard line on Iran. Berlin in the past has been conciliatory toward Tehran, choosing to protect the nuclear deal and commercial ties. Berlin’s latest move banning Mahan may be attributed to several things coming together which couldn’t be overlooked, from the spy in the Bundeswehr to Iranian assassinations on European soil.

Sascha Lohmann, an expert on US foreign policy at the SWP foreign policy think tank, pointed out that sanctions can also be a signal, not only to the country they affect but also from the sender to other third parties. The decision to comply with the US call to rescind the airline’s landing rights may be a friendly gesture ahead of Heiko Maas’ trip to Washington this week, amid what Lohmann called a “poisonous cocktail” in the sanctions environment. He was referring to the unprecedented tensions within the trans-Atlantic relationship over Iran and Nord Stream 2. Washington is constantly pressuring Berlin to withdraw from the pipeline project.

While Berlin pursues its own aims, which differ in both areas from those of Washington, banning Mahan is an indication that Germany may not be as intransigent as the US government may imagine, and a reminder that the two governments at least agree in some areas.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]