Venezuelan aircraft with suspected links to Iranian terrorist organization being held in Argentina

By June 24, 2022

An aircraft landed in Argentina from Venezuela earlier this month and immediately raised alarms. 

Local authorities, citing alleged intelligence from international agencies, have said that Iranian members of the crew aboard the flight may have links to the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, designated a terrorist organization by the United States. The plane and its crew remain detained pending further investigation. 

On June 8, a plane with Venezuelan registration belonging to the cargo airline EMTRASUR was detained at the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires. The aircraft was reportedly sold to Venezuela by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline designated a terrorist entity by the U.S. for its alleged links with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force. 

The aircraft that was carrying autoparts was overmanned, according to national authorities. It allegedly carried 19 people —  14 Venezuelans and five Iranians. The size of the crew, coupled with alleged intelligence warnings from other countries about the plane, led officials to detain the aircraft and its crew in Argentina’s capital. 

The Plane’s Whirlwind Journey 

According to media reports, the plane belonging to EMTRASUR departed from Venezuela on June 4 and stopped in Queretaro, Mexico the same day on its way to Buenos Aires, and then on to Montevideo, Uruguay. 

The aircraft made an unexpected landing in Cordoba province due to foggy weather in Buenos Aires, but touched down in the country’s capital on June 6. 

Upon arrival, airport customs officials and police reportedly checked the airplane’s cargo and reviewed the crew’s documents several times, finding nothing unusual, and the aircraft was released. However, jet fuel suppliers Shell and YPF reportedly refused to provide the plane with fuel to continue its journey to Montevideo, Uruguay on June 7. 

Despite the low fuel, the crew decided to depart on June 8 with the intention of refueling in Uruguay upon arrival. However, Uruguayan authorities denied access to the plane to land, so it returned to Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires on the same day, and was detained by authorities there.

Argentina and Iran: A Tense Relationship on the Mend

Relations between Argentina and Iran had been turbulent in the early 1990s due to Iran’s alleged involvement in two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires during that decade. 

The first, an explosion at the Israeli Embassy in 1992, and the second, a bombing at a Jewish community center, AMIA, two years later, which killed 85 people and injured over 300.

The 1994 AMIA bombing. Image courtesy of Infobae.

In 2013, after many years of tense relations, the Argentine government led by now Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the signing of a controversial memorandum of understanding with Iran to establish a “commision for the truth” to investigate the AMIA bombing. 

However, this memorandum was canceled by the right-wing administration of former president Mauricio Macri in 2015 after it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court and it was never approved by the Iranian parliament. 

In 2015, Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor in charge of the first AMIA investigation in 2004 who had formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of participating in the terrorist attack, was found dead under suspicious circumstances. His body was found hours before he was supposed to appear before Congress and show the evidence he had gathered to prove that the Iranian government was behind the 1994 bombing. 

Speaking to local radio station Urbana Play about the plane incident and its context, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Santiago Cafiero said, “This topic, of course, triggers sensitivities and is something totally reasonable. We want to be very cautious and separate things. We continue with our claims to the Iranian government that there be collaboration for the in-depth investigation in the AMIA case and it is something that we are going to continue permanently pursuing,” said Mr. Cafiero.

A Pilot with Alleged Ties to the Quds Force

The plane’s pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi, is being investigated by government authorities for his alleged links to the Quds Force. According to Infobae, a search of the pilot’s cell phone turned up photos of missiles, tanks, and a picture of a young Ghasemi “as a combatant in the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” 

Also, according to an FBI document shared with the Argentine judge Federico Villena, Ghasemi could be an official from Iranian airline Qeshm Fars Air, which allegedly could be involved in operations by the Al-Quds forces and Iranian intelligence to transfer people and weapons to places of conflict in the Middle East, said a source to El Diario

The pilot of the aircraft, Ghasemi Gholamreza, and his copilot, Mahdi Museli. Image courtesy of Clarín.

Minister of Security Aníbal Fernández, specified that one of the crew members on the flight corresponds to “a namesake” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force. While Agustín Rossi, head of the Federal Agency of Intelligence, said that the Iranian crew members were working as “flight instructors” for their Venezuelan partners.

EMTRASUR, a Venezuelan Cargo Airline

EMTRASUR, the airline operating the plane, was created by Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in 2020 as a cargo affiliate of the national airline, Conviasa, according to Infobae. 

Their fleet allegedly has only one registered plane — the one stranded in Argentina — and was bought by the Venezuelan government from Mahan Air, an Iranian company that was also sanctioned by the U.S. for its services provided to groups considered terrorists by American authorities. 

The Venezuelan company assured in a court filing that the plane had been acquired in January, while a flight plan found aboard the plane dated April 23 allegedly states that the plane belonged to Qeshm Fars Air.
On June 21, federal prosecutor Cecilia Incardona requested to open an investigation into the irregularities with the aircraft and its crew, and as a result, federal judge Federico Villena has issued an order that the plane and its crew remain in Argentina while the investigation continues.