OFAC Jeopardizes Air Traffic Safety While Congress Prepares Sanctions Coup de Grâce on Iran

“Death to Iran” Over Airline Passenger Safety

By Franklin Lamb


International air travelers in flights over Asia could well be in danger from a recent policy change enacted by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), this as the latter puts Israel’s “death to Iran” policy seemingly ahead of even airline passenger safety.

The OFAC is the enforcement arm of US sanctions policies. When American leaders take a notion to target this or that country for sanctions, it is OFAC that determines which banks, businesses or individuals within that country will be targeted, as well as what penalties are to be imposed upon those who violate the sanctions. Not only are American-owned businesses subject to these penalties, but such is the economic clout of the US that even foreign-owned firms, including air carriers, can be made to pay a price as well. And the price now being demanded could perhaps best be described as “reckless.”

For years Israel has been pressuring the White House to ‘get serious’ about sanctions against Iran, and now, in the run-up to the Nov. 24 “deadline” for an agreement with the Islamic Republic (which in reality may end up being just another extension), AIPAC/OFAC has won another victory for its handlers in Occupied Palestine.

“It may seem just another modest tightening of the screws on the Mullahs, but its part of a pattern, and you can expect to see more of this,” says a former pro-AIPAC Congressional staffer who has undergone a change of views and split from the staunchly pro-Israel crowd. “The AIPAC/OFAC Gemini (twins) are a, if not the, main potent force in dreaming up yet more US sanctions targeting Iran.”

Professing skepticism about Iran’s intentions, Republicans are not only refusing to lift existing sanctions but are proposing the introduction of even more measures, according to congressional sources at the House Republican Caucus. It is a campaign being organized by Netanyahu’s many supporters in Congress from both sides of the aisle.

While the Israeli prime minister’s relations with Obama are fractious, this is most assuredly not the case with Congress, and the same sources doubt that the president will act unilaterally to lift Iranian sanctions by issuing presidential waivers. The reason is the White House fears the loss of what is left of his good will on the Hill since he solely needs it to salvage something of Obamacare, arguably Obama’s only major domestic accomplishment over the past six years. Just this week Obama repeated his druthers that he would “rather have no deal than a bad deal.”

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And naturally, the more lunatic fringe of the neocon alliance has seemingly had new life breathed into it as a result of this week’s elections.

“These Iran mullahs are barbarian. They are stoning women, hanging women, torturing women, jailing and murdering innocents. Now the BBC reports they want to give women or anyone 74 lashes for walking a dog because it may be an insult to Islam. Well, I relieve Iran’s mullahs may be an insult to Islam.” says one ardent young Tea Party organizer named “Wendy,” a former college homecoming queen from New Orleans, who voiced her views in an email that ended up being passed along to this observer. “There will be no nuclear deal with Iran until there is a revolution in Iran and the homophobic crazies are sent to their waiting, certain to be disappointed, 72 virgins.”

She went on to write: “John McCain is going to be chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee and Bob Corker will chair the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. They will see to that and have our backing!” Both gentlemen are eager interventionists; both are hawks.

The Tea Party lady’s prognosis may be on the money, so to speak, since it appears unlikely the new Congress will suddenly adopt a more bipartisan approach. According to a former AIPAC intern, a ‘legal memorandum’ (which the intern had a role in researching) was sent out from AIPAC’s offices last month, across the Capitol Mall—just below and in front of the Capitol building—to the office of David Cohen at OFAC. The close proximity of the two offices makes this a well-worn path, one used in both directions, but at any rate as a result of this mail delivery, AIPAC once again achieved its goal of “strengthening robust sanctions against a terrorist state.”

The contents of the memorandum may at first glance seem picayune, but the initiative could end up proving dangerous for passengers on international flights in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Moreover, it appears unlikely, for reasons outlined below, that the new Congress will back off this latest effort by OFAC/AIPAC at tightening the noose around the Iranian civilian population.

Any realistic prospect for a settlement on the Iran nuclear issue by November 24 may well have been scuttled by the latest elections—much to the relief, of course, of the US Zionist lobby. What is likely at this point is another extension of the deadline, which would give the P5+1 more time to consider Russia’s last minute initiative to broker an “Assad chemical weapons deal”—thereby allowing concerned parties to “take custody” of Iran’s uranium stockpile for peaceful processing under UN inspections.

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Both sides are preparing for the crucial session, with the Iranians claiming a deal is all but done. “We have reached consensus on generalities and there are only the fine details to be worked out,” said President Rouhani on Iranian TV last week. Almost as an afterthought, he added: “Of course details are important too, but what’s important is that the nuclear issue is irreversible. I think a final settlement can be achieved in these remaining 40 days. We will not return to the situation a year ago. The world is tired and wants it to end, resolved through negotiations…A nuclear settlement is certain.”

Well nice words, and maybe they were intended mainly for domestic consumption. But the facts are that profound differences still exist between the two sides, and this has been apparent for months. Four remaining issues are: a) Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity (which determines how soon the country could achieve “breakout” by producing enough fissile material for a bomb); b) much more transparency on Iran’s past nuclear research; c) how soon sanctions would be lifted; and, d) how long Iran would be subjected to nuclear constraints before earning the right to be treated, in the words of the UK Economist, as a “normal” signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran, for its own part, insists it will not dismantle any of its existing centrifuges, and that it must be allowed to increase them to a level sufficient to fuel Bushehr—a tenfold increase in its current installed capacity. So against this backdrop, what did OFAC/AIPAC do to torque up the coercion factor? It takes a certain mindset (perhaps the word “diabolical” might be applicable) to have dreamt up their scheme, but simply put it’s as follows:

AIPAC and the Israeli embassy legal team found in OFAC’s website, specifically in the FAQ section, a passage pertaining to Iranian civil aviation authorities. Frankly only some in the business community, or more precisely their lawyers (who else really counts these days?), could possibly muster the motivation to read through OFAC’s unimaginably arcane regulations. Yet David Cohen, OFAC’s director and a regular fixture at AIPAC legislative conferences, hit upon the FAQ section of the agency’s website as the venue for announcing to the world a brand new Iran-targeting measure, one that could prove exceedingly dangerous to air travelers.

Specifically the FAQ in question is FAQ #417, which reads:

“Are payments or the facilitation of payments to Iranian civil aviation authorities for overflights of Iran or emergency landing in Iran by aircraft that are owned by a non-U.S. person and registered outside the United States sanctionable under U.S. law?”

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What the OFAC team did was to cryptically, and without opportunity for public input, change the policy on this—in a manner that increases the possibility that someone on an international flight might suddenly find their plane falling out of the sky.

The old FAQ explained to the airline industry that if your plane developed mechanical problems, say, it was okay to make an unscheduled landing in Iran. The Iranians have not minded, and only charged a very modest $50 to $ 2000 fee to the affected airline, US carriers included. The OFAC FAQ previously had specified that non-U.S. airlines (under 31 C.F.R. § 560.522) were permitted to overfly Iran and make emergency landings there as long as no payments were made to, or through, any of the specifically designated banks in Iran (like Bank Melli), or any entities on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

However, the new rule, in the revised FAQ 417, states that the payments now cannot involve the U.S. financial system if a foreign carrier is concerned; the U.S. financial system may only be used for U.S. carriers, which, under 31 C.F.R. § 560.522, are permitted to overfly and make emergency landings in Iran.

In other words AIPAC-OFAC is refusing to allow any payments made to Iran, even to insure the safety of the internationally flying public who would prefer, quite naturally, not to get shot down over Iraq or Ukraine. For a while now, and especially since the ISIS takeover of portions of Iraq and Syria, a number of airlines, including Air France and Virgin Atlantic, have for safety reasons re-routed their flights through Iranian airspace. But AIPAC says these airlines, from now on, will only be able to pay Iran’s “blood money” (their word choice) through non-US banks.

The catch-22, however, is that they—AIPAC and OFAC both— know full well that given the recent huge OFAC fines on foreign banks for the slightest sanctions transgression, most of these banks are not likely to take that risk, given the small payment fee they would receive. So what are the airlines to do? Presumably their lawyers have instructed them to assume the risk without upsetting their passengers, and just keep silent.

And it’s probably unlikely that the new war-hungry Congressional leadership will challenge this latest policy change putting air travelers at peril. Flyers are forewarned—and would be well advised to check their flight paths so long as this latest sanctions measure remains in effect.

And Americans could contact their new Congress members, who probably are clueless as to this life-endangering issue.