The seemingly never-ending saga involving a former Iranian-owned Boeing 747-300 that was seized in Argentina in June 2022 has taken another twist. While the alleged Venezuelan owner wants their plane back, the Argentinian authorities are to turn the plane over to authorities in the United States.
The bizarre tale involving the stricken aircraft began on June 6, 2022, when Emtrasur’s Boeing 747-300M, registered YV3531, landed at Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) from Mexico carrying a load of motor vehicle parts. Emtrasur is the cargo subsidiary of Venezuelan national carrier Conviasa.
Upon landing in Argentina, airport fuel companies in Buenos Aires refused to provide fuel for the aircraft. Nonetheless, on June 8, 2022, the aircraft departed Buenos Aires for a relatively short flight to Uruguay. However, that flight was subsequently denied access to Uruguayan airspace, forcing the crew to return once more to Buenos Aires.
The initial concern about the plane and its operator was raised by Paraguayan authorities. On May 13, 2022, Emtrasur operated a flight to Ciudad del Este (near the border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay) and landed with 18 crew onboard. The group included seven Iranian citizens and 11 Venezuelans. Although a search of the aircraft upon landing back at Buenos Aires found nothing of concern in terms of the cargo onboard, the crew were arrested under suspicion of having links to an international terrorist organization.
According to the authorities in Paraguay, one of the individuals onboard had links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Quds Force. The aircraft’s captain, Gholamreza Ghasemy was the man being accused and an international criminal investigation into the whole Emtrasur cargo operation began.
After five months of detention, the aircraft’s crew was eventually released pending further investigations. However, the aircraft was not. Having formerly served with Iranian airline Mahan Air, the aircraft came in for scrutiny by US authorities concerning international trade restrictions that apply to any dealings with Iranian companies.
Now, 18 months later, and with the standard aircraft still on the ground in Buenos Aires, a US prosecutor has requested the US Justice Department to order the definitive execution of the seizure order applicable to the plane. The US prosecutor claims that the sale of the aircraft by Mahan Air to Conviasa was an unequivocal breach violation of current US Export Control Laws.
The US government has begun its own legal process to seize the aircraft and has issued a formal request by letter to the Argentinian Ministry of Justice requesting that the aircraft be handed over to them. But, adding to the complexities of an already contentious multinational situation, Venezuela’s government has now repeated its own requests for the return of the Boeing 747 to state-owned Conviasa.
The state of play means that Argentina now finds itself at the center of a complex international dispute. While it could simply comply with the US request and hand the aircraft over or even fly it to a designated point in the US, it risks exacerbating the dispute with close neighbor Venezuela and even possibly irritating Iran, who are continuing to monitor events closely according to local press reports.
With the latest developments, it would seem as though the long-running saga involving YV3531 is far from over and has some distance left to run before an amicable resolution can be found by all those with an interest in the aging plane.
History of YV3531
Originally delivered in 1986 to French airline Union de Transports Aériens (which itself was merged into Air France in 1992), the aircraft involved has flown for several carriers during its 37-year career.
The aircraft was sold by Air France to Garuda Indonesia in 2006 before being sold on to Iranian carrier Blue Airways in 2007. In 2009, it was transferred to fellow Iranian airline Mahan Air which operated the plane which was by that time registered as EP-MND. Finally, EP-MND was sold to Conviasa in 2022 and began operating cargo flights on behalf of Emtrasur with Venezuelan registration YV3531.
According to the Department of Justice, Mahan Air violated a temporary Denial Order and US export control laws when the aircraft was sold to Conviasa/Emtrasur without formal US Government authorization.
The alleged breach of the Denial Order and the export restrictions is what has led to the prolonged detention of the aircraft in Buenos Aires. This latest request by US authorities for the plane to be turned over to them potentially marks the start of the next chapter in the saga involving its chequered life.