How is a Venezuelan cargo plane linked to Iran’s attempts to attack Israelis?

A Venezuelan cargo plane bought from Iran is the latest piece in the IRGC's smuggling enterprise.

 A view of the Boeing 747 aircraft registered with the number YV3531 of Venezuelan Emtrasur Cargo airline, at the Cordoba International airport, Ambrosio Taravella, in Cordoba, Argentina, June 6, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sebastian Borsero)
A view of the Boeing 747 aircraft registered with the number YV3531 of Venezuelan Emtrasur Cargo airline, at the Cordoba International airport, Ambrosio Taravella, in Cordoba, Argentina, June 6, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sebastian Borsero)

The recent detainment of a Venezuelan cargo plane in Argentina could be linked to attempts by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to attack Israelis abroad, according to independent Israeli intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon, who runs the Intelli Times blog.

The cargo plane, which belongs to the Venezuelan state-owned Emtrasur cargo company, was detained on June 8 after landing in Buenos Aires. There were concerns linked to the aircraft’s past as an Iranian aircraft and due to Iranian crew members staffing the flight.

Since the plane was detained, the case has expanded, with Argentinean Federal Judge Federico Villena ordering the plane to be seized and inspected for any documents or evidence that could help determine what the crew was doing in Buenos Aires.

What was the aircraft doing in Argentina and why was it detained?

Drones are seen during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021 (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)Drones are seen during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021 (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)

Iran’s operations in Venezuela

Iran has a long history of drug, weapons and oil smuggling in South America – particularly with Venezuela and with criminal organizations in multiple countries on the continent.

According to Solomon, a Western security source revealed that the IRGC Quds Force’s Unit 840, which is responsible for terrorist operations outside of Iran against Western targets and opposition groups, has operations in South America, which an official named Said Muhamad Hasan Khajazi runs from Venezuela.

Unit 840 is also the unit in which Hassan Sayyad Khodayari, who was assassinated in an attack blamed on Israel, served. After his assassination, Iranian officials threatened to attack Israelis in retaliation, sparking travel warnings for Israelis in multiple countries bordering Iran.

Alongside the IRGC’s operations, Hezbollah, which is closely linked to the IRGC, holds power over the triangle where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, running a drug trade and smuggling vehicles, weapons and people to support intelligence and terrorism operations.

Iranian-Venezuelan weapons trade

On September 13, 2020, an intelligence source revealed footage of a delegation of Iranian officials in Venezuela, including Hassan Kazemi Qomi, who is suspected of being connected to the IRGC, and Mahan Air CEO Hamid Arabnejad, according to Solomon.

The delegation was also joined by Parviz Bahrami Rad, chairman of the board of the Chillco Company, which works in transportation, infrastructure and energy, as well as Naimi Mousavi and Said Badr El-Din, two Iranian businessmen.

The delegation arrived in Venezuela covertly by flying on a cargo flight belonging to Fars Air Qeshm. While in the country, they met with a series of local officials, including Venezuela Industries and National Production Minister Tareck El Aissami.

 Iranian officials in Caracas, Venezuela (credit: Intelli Times) Iranian officials in Caracas, Venezuela (credit: Intelli Times)

An additional meeting between Venezuelan officials and the Mahan Air CEO took place in December 2020, added Solomon.

On November 6, 2020, a cargo flight belonging to Fars Air Qeshm was seen unloading cargo at the civilian airport in Caracas. Just a few weeks later, the EANSA company revealed a training aircraft called SIBO100, which was, in practice, a copy of the K10 light aircraft developed by Iran’s HESA company.

During the unveiling of the SIBO100, a drone named P071A-007 – which seems to be a copy of the Iranian Mohajer 6 drone produced by Iran’s Defense Ministry – was unveiled as well. These two aircraft models and the means to produce them have been exported to Yemen in the past. Recently, Iran signed an agreement to provide them to Tajikistan as well.

Venezuelan Arpía, a license-built copy of the Iranian Mohajer-2 drone, exhibited during the Balanda 2016 aeronautical fair (credit: Carlos E. Perez S.L/Wikimedia Commons)Venezuelan Arpía, a license-built copy of the Iranian Mohajer-2 drone, exhibited during the Balanda 2016 aeronautical fair (credit: Carlos E. Perez S.L/Wikimedia Commons)

Iranian drones have been exported to Venezuela since 2012, when an Iranian Mohajer 2 was identified under a brand connected to the aviation industrial group of Venezuela (CAVIM).

In November, Defense Minister Benny Gantz corroborated earlier reports that Iran was providing Venezuela with weapons and attempting to increase the IRGC’s presence in South America. In February of this year, Gantz added that Venezuela was developing Mohajer UAVs and receiving Iranian precision-guided munitions for Iranian UAVs. The defense minister also presented a photo of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with a model of the Mohajer 6.

Iran’s latest expansion of its smuggling line

The recently detained aircraft is one of Iran’s latest efforts to expand its weapons-smuggling operations with Venezuela, Solomon explained.

For over a decade, the recently detained Boeing 747-3B3 cargo plane belonged to the Iranian Mahan Air, an airline that has been sanctioned by the US for transporting IRGC operatives, weapons, equipment and funds.

In February of this year, intelligence agencies began monitoring the cargo plane about a month after it switched its registration from being under Mahan Air to being under Emtrasur, the cargo branch of the Venezuelan state-owned Conviasa company, explained the Intelli Times editor. The Emtrasur company was founded in November 2021.

After the transfer, the aircraft, staffed by an Iranian team, took off on January 23 from Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran and began operating out of El Libertador Air Base in Maracay, Venezuela, near where the Venezualan state-owned EANSA company operates to produce and assemble satellites and armaments for aircraft.

The new registration provided Iran with a way to covertly ship equipment, personnel and weapons straight to EANSA without having to use Iranian airlines or land in civilian airports.

According to Solomon, the previously Iranian aircraft was also able to conduct “fueling stops” along its routes, sparking concerns that the aircraft could have used the stops to covertly transfer operatives and equipment for the IRGC Quds Force’s Unit 190, as well as to carry products to sell in order to fund terrorist operations.

The Quds Force’s Unit 190 smuggles weapons to its forces and proxies abroad and directs and conducts terrorist attacks abroad, the Israeli analyst explained.

Gholamreza Ghasemi, the pilot of the aircraft when the plane was detained, has been linked in the past with Unit 190 and has been identified by the FBI as the CEO of Fars Air Qeshm.

The aircraft’s latest smuggling activity

Between March 1 and April 23 of this year, the Emtrasur aircraft made a number of cargo flights, including to the airport in Guangzhou, China. China is suspected of being a major supplier for Iran for parts and equipment needed to develop UAVs.

On February 24, the aircraft was raided and investigated after it made a technical landing, likely for fueling, at the airport in Belgrade, explained Solomon. The raid was photographed by an aviation enthusiast who happened to be photographing the landing.

On June 6, the aircraft took off from Mexico towards Ezeiza Airport in Argentina with its transponder off, but landed on the way at Cordoba airport due to weather conditions. Despite the landing at Cordoba airport being portrayed as happenstance, people or goods were seemingly loaded or unloaded from the aircraft during the stop, according to Solomon.

Afterward, the aircraft landed in Buenos Aires carrying vehicle parts it had loaded in Mexico. While there is a wide trade of auto parts between Mexico and Argentina, there is no apparent reason why a Venezuelan aircraft staffed by Iranians would be the one shipping these parts, explained Solomon. This fact was one of the factors that sparked suspicions that the flight was also carrying "dual-use" parts which could be used for both civilian and military purposes.

After landing in Buenos Aires, the aircraft attempted to depart to Uruguay but was refused entry and returned to Argentina, where it was then detained by Argentine authorities. 

On June 11, a list of crewmembers was leaked revealing that the aircraft was carrying 19 staff members, much more than needed for such a flight. The staff included five Iranians, including Ghasemi.

According to reports from Argentine media, the staff told authorities that the Iranians were on the flight in order to train the Venezuelan staff as part of the transfer of the aircraft from Mahan Air. Mahan Air stated earlier this month that the ownership of the aircraft was transferred to Emtrasur a year ago and the staff on the plane were employed by the Venezuelan airline, not Mahan.

The Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported that two of the Venezuelan staff members were soldiers, both with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The cell phones, laptops, tablets and passports of all the staff members have been seized by Argentine authorities. Photos of tanks, weapons and a photo of himself serving in the IRGC were found on Ghasemi's phone, as well as an image of an Israeli flag with an anti-Israel statement in Farsi, according to La Nacion.

Cecilia Incardona, the prosecutor leading the case in Argentina, has ordered an investigation to determine the true objective of the plane's arrival in Buenos Aires and to determine the possible connection of Ghasemi to international terrorist activities. Incardona cited the "irregular circumstances" and "inconsistencies in information" surrounding the case.

Gerardo Milman, an Argentine lawmaker, claimed in an interview with Iran International last week that the Iranians on board the aircraft were planning "attacks on human targets."

Solomon told The Jerusalem Post that this story seems to have come to light from information leaked or transferred by an Israeli source, based on statements made by the embassy in Argentina. The Israeli analyst stressed that the goal in stopping this plane was to thwart any chance that this plane could be used to transport operatives or equipment and to point out that this line is being used for the production of UAVs that could threaten Israel, the US or other countries in South America.

Iranian attacks in Argentina

Operations by Iran and its proxies in South America have impacted Argentina in the past, including in the deadly 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, in which a car bomb detonated next to the building, killing 85 people and injuring over 300.

Argentine prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martinez Burgos, who were assigned to the case, accused the Iranian government of directing the bombing and the Lebanese Hezbollah group of carrying it out.

Just two years before the AMIA attack, in 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was targeted by a bombing attack that killed 29 and wounded over 240. Hezbollah and the Iranian government have also been accused of having directed and carried out that attack.