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US lawmaker calls for more sanctions on Iranian airlines ferrying drones to Russia

Senior Republican on House Foreign Affairs Committee says Biden administration has "failed" to curb proliferation of Iranian drones
Smoke rises over the street as Ukrainian firefighters work after a drone attack in Kyiv, on 17 October 2022 (AFP)

The Biden administration has failed to curb Iran’s transfer of drones and military technology to Syria, Ethiopia, and Russia as well as “a host of malign terrorist proxies”, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said.

In a letter released on Wednesday, Congressman Michael McCaul said the Biden administration had “failed to make full use of its authorities to deter, degrade, and prohibit Iranian arms transfers”, as he called for tighter sanctions enforcement.

McCaul signalled Iran’s use of aircraft to transport drones and military supplies to its partners and proxies across the globe.

“There must be strong outreach to allies and partners, as well as third parties to include airports and aviation companies, on the irresponsibility of engaging with, or authorizing overflight for” Iranian air lines linked to sanctioned entities,” the letter said.

Target airports and aviation companies 

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The US slapped sanctions in September on three Iranian cargo planes accused of ferrying supplies to Russia, in violation of US export controls imposed over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Under US law, working with a sanctioned entity subjects one to US sanctions as well, which means a company or person providing refueling, maintenance, repair, or spare parts to the airlines could also see their US assets frozen.

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“These same aircraft continue to operate freely in countries around the world, including countries in Europe, as they ferry weapons and restricted technology to Russia, Ethiopia, Syria and elsewhere,” the letter stated.

Iran has long been accused of supplying drones to proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. The advent of Iranian drones in Ukraine marks their first foray into a major conventional battle and the European continent.

Moscow and Tehran have both denied Iranian drones are being used in Ukraine, but the countries have spoken openly about their military engagement.

In a nod to their potential use, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has even boasted about the country's drone programme. 

In the past, people doubted Iranian technology, calling it fake, Khamenei said. "Now they say Iranian drones are dangerous. Why do you sell them to so-and-so?"

Ballistic missiles an 'escalation' 

The US, UK, and EU have all sanctioned Iranian companies they accuse of facilitating the transfer of drones. Analysts and western officials say Russia has turned to Iran for military supplies as it faces severe shortages in its own defence industry.

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In his letter, McCaul also warned about reports that Iran was preparing to send ballistic missiles, including Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles to Russia.

“This would represent a serious and dangerous escalation with respect to Iran’s complicity in Russia’s illegal war and threaten to stall Ukrainian successes just as the Kremlin appears to be at a breaking point,” the letter said.

Iran’s military assistance to Russia has reverberated beyond Ukraine’s battlefield, with the US now saying the arms shipments are another factor preventing a return to the defunct 2015 nuclear deal.

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