Iran’s largest commercial civilian airline serves as a platform for “smuggling weapons” into Syria and Lebanon on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to a new report by the Alma Research and Education Center, an Israeli non-profit defence watchdog.
The report claims Mahan Air has set up a smuggling division known as Special Unit 190, which is responsible for transferring Iranian-made weapons around the Middle East, including advanced weapons components to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria.
Mahan Air was founded in 1991 by the son of former President Rafsanjani in Kerman and is considered Iran’s largest privately-owned commercial airline, with a fleet of around 36 rapidly ageing aircraft.
In times gone by, Mahan Air regularly served international routes to Europe but in recent years, the carrier has been hobbled by sanctions from the United States and many European countries.
The Alma Center, however, claims Mahan Air is directly linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard through the supposedly civilian Mola al-Movahedin Charitable Organization. Through this link, Mahan Air carries out regular weapons shipments on ‘civilian’ flights.
The report lists 63 Mahan Air pilots who have allegedly been involved in smuggling operations in Lebanon and Syria, and while none of the pilots are publicly linked to the Revolutionary Guard, the report claims some could be ‘on loan’ from the IRGC or simply innocent bystanders who are turning a blind eye.
The Alma Center claims Mahan Air has been making regular flights to Damascus International Airport in Syria and Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut. The airline has also operated a number of flights to war-torn Aleppo.
As evidence of apparent weapons smuggling, the report points to flight tracking data that appears to show a Mahan Air suddenly turning up in Beirut with no record of it flying to Lebanon.
“Mahan Air is a standard airline landing in civilian airports, currently involved in Quds Force weapons transfers to various destinations in the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon,” the report explains.
“The company serves the IRGC as a civilian platform for smuggling weapons via their Special Unit 190. This unit is in charge of transferring Iranian weapons throughout the Middle East.”
“The company is likely also involved in transferring weapons and other equipment to Russia due to the war in Ukraine.
Mahan Air’s regular weapons shipments has even resulted, it is claimed, in Israel carrying out airstrikes on Damascus International Airport and the Aleppo-Nayrab Airport shortly before Mahan Air flights were due to land.
Earlier this year, the airline made headlines when Indian Air Force fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Mahan Air Airbus A340 as it flew from Tehran to Guangzhou, China.
The aircraft had reportedly received a bomb threat as it was flying close to Delhi, but the pilots refused to divert to an airport suggested by the Indian Air Force and after entering a holding pattern for a short time, the pilots decided to simply continue on to China.
“It is intriguing to speculate what was in the cargo of the plane that caused the pilots not to land despite the threat of a bomb,” the Alma Center report asks.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.