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OPINION

What Is Venezuela Flying to Moscow?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Iran is a willing accomplice in the rape of Ukraine. Iranian drones have helped Russia sustain its terror attacks against Ukrainian civilian targets and infrastructure even as Russia’s arsenal became depleted. But Iranian drones are not only made in Iran. Tehran’s clerical regime previously exported its drones to Venezuela and established a drone assembly line there in cooperation with Venezuela’s military industry.

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Direct flights between Caracas and Moscow began in 2021, but something unusual happened after Russian troops marched on Ukraine the following year: Flights headed from Caracas to Moscow began stopping in Tehran. The first such instance occurred on March 5, 2022, less than two weeks after Russia’s invasion, and this flight pattern continued until at least early February 2023. Since then, most Caracas-Moscow flights fly direct, but take a circuitous route over the northern Atlantic, flying just south of Iceland toward the Arctic Circle, well north of Scandinavia, before heading south to Moscow, as if to avoid entering any NATO country’s airspace (Finland included).

The U.S. government should swiftly determine if these flights are indeed transporting Venezuela’s indigenously assembled drones to Russia, along with other critical merchandise, in violation of U.S. and allied sanctions. Commercial aircraft, however, cannot be boarded like sea vessels for search and seizure. Yet the innovative application of sanctions, building on precedents the Biden administration set last year, could ground Caracas’ Moscow-bound transports.

To figure out what’s going on here, one must begin with the airlines and the aircraft involved. Conviasa is Venezuela’s U.S.-sanctioned, state-owned airline. It operates the Caracas-Tehran route, which began last summer, as well as direct flights to Moscow. Such direct, long-distance flights are possible, thanks to Conviasa’s acquisition in 2021 of four airplanes from Mahan Air, the U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline affiliated with Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC. The four aircraft included an old Boeing 747 cargo jet and three Airbus A340 passenger craft, which Conviasa bought from Mahan through a Dubai-based intermediary.

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Little is known publicly about what these aircraft carry. Ostensibly, these commercial flights from Caracas to Moscow and Tehran every other week are for passengers and aim to promote bilateral cooperation in trade and tourism. Flight patterns and evidence from Venezuela’s pro-regime media outlets suggest a different story.

First of all, there seem to be few passengers aboard these passenger flights, and those few have connections to the regime. The promotional video for the inaugural Caracas-Tehran flight, for example, showed an almost empty passenger section of the aircraft. The TV crew interviewed three Iranian passengers, without listing their names. Cross-referencing their faces with publicly available photos from a variety of sources – including the Twitter account of the Iranian embassy in Caracas – allowed the author to confirm the interviewees were Seyed Mojtaba Hosseini Nejad, and two unnamed officials of the Iranian embassyincluding their official translator. Hosseini Nejad is the permanent representative in Caracas of Al Mustafa International University, a U.S.-sanctioned Iranian propaganda institution. The plane’s captain, Antonio José Cabriles Lobos, is a retired Venezuelan air force pilot who participated in the botched 1992 coup led by the late Hugo Chavez. Cabriles later became a member of the presidential air group in charge of flying Chavez, and then his successor Nicolas Maduro, on official trips. Though nominally for passengers, these planes are perfectly suitable to transport cargo. Iran has already been using its small fleet of Boeing 747 cargo planes, operated by the (U.S.-sanctioned)  IRGC affiliate Fars Air Qeshm, to carry military equipment to Russia. Conviasa too has assisted Iran cargo operations.

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Venezuela’s minister of tourism, Ali Padron, confirmed that the Moscow flights are intended for cargo, not just passengers, in a press conference ahead of the inaugural flight in May 2021. He also touted the flight as bearing strategic importance for the two countries. In the promotional video for the inaugural Caracas-Tehran journey (minute 8:00), Captain Cabriles stated that the aircraft was carrying “medicines, catalysts to make gasoline, and electoral machines.” Satellite imagery also shows that on March 12, 2023, the Conviasa flight to Tehran was parked in the cargo section of the Imam Khomeini International Airport, not the passenger terminal.

Travel patterns are also inconsistent with the publicized nature of these flights. Data publicly available from flight tracker Flight Radar 24, for Conviasa aircrafts YV3533 and YV3535, the two formerly Mahan-owned aircraft now flying the Conviasa flag, show that the Moscow-bound planes frequently flew to Tehran first, showing the flight as “diverted,” as if the aircraft had a technical problem. But diversions occurred many flights between March 2022 and February 2023, with the plane typically remaining in Tehran overnight, before heading to Moscow. Even more curiously, on its return leg, the Moscow-Caracas flight would stop over in Tehran and land in Porlamar, Isla Margarita’s airport, before returning to Caracas. Such pattern, occurring almost invariably for almost a year, suggests that rather than transporting Russian tourists back to Moscow, Conviasa may be moving cargo between the three rogue nations.

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Conviasa’s flights to Iran are no novelty and have never been truly commercial. During the Chavez era, between 2007 and 2010, Conviasa flew weekly to Tehran, with a stopover in Damascus. Only government-authorized passengers, including wanted terrorists, ever travelled the route, which earned the nickname “aeroterror.”

After the suspension of Caracas-Damascus-Tehran route, there were no direct flights between the Venezuelan and Iranian capitals for almost a decade, until the spring of 2020, when Iran launched an airlift to Venezuela. Mahan Air’s long-haul aircraft ferried between the two capitals, reportedly carrying much needed oil sector equipment to rescue Venezuela from mounting gasoline shortages. Even after the airlift ended, Iranian aircraft continued to fly to Venezuela. Large-bodied cargo aircraft, operated by Fars Air Qeshm, frequently crossed the Atlantic, making stopovers along the way. These flights encountered numerous problems, likely due to quiet U.S. diplomatic pressure on the countries where the aircraft made technical stopovers, and the flights abruptly stopped when Russia invaded Ukraine, with Fars Air Qeshm cargo beginning regular flights to Moscow instead. Yet Conviasa may have taken over this role, operating “commercial” flights to Tehran with its Iranian-supplied long-haul aircraft.

Despite U.S. sanctions, in the past allied countries have rarely closed their airspace to transiting Iranian or Venezuelan aircraft, making these flights unstoppable (although more recent, circuitous routes avoid European airspace on their way to Moscow). But Conviasa has two vulnerabilities. Its fleet is small and the two aircraft usually operating the Tehran and Moscow routes also fly to other destinations, including Mexico City, Cancun, and Lima. Last June, a plane formerly owned by Mahan Air and operated by a Conviasa subsidiary, Emtrasur, landed in Buenos Aires. It could not refuel, because Washington informed jet fuel providers they would be violating sanctions. Then the Department of Justice issued a seizure warrant. The plane remains impounded in Buenos Aires, permanently grounding the only (official) cargo plane in Conviasa’s fleet.

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The Biden administration could employ these same tools against Conviasa’s frequent flights to both Mexico and Peru. Quiet pressure on jet fuel suppliers, airport service providers, and a possible warrant for seizure submitted to Mexico’s and Peru’s justice ministries might ground those Conviasa planes in a third country. Such tactics could ground the entire Conviasa long-haul fleet, thus denying Iran and Russia a critical tool to evade sanctions and continue fueling their wars of aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institution based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi

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