Training Iranian pilots in Europe: are sanctions not at play? Sofia Flight School and SIMAERO cases investigated

Are Iranian pilots receiving flight training in Europe?
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Over the course of the past few decades, Iran has been subject to restrictive sanctions from various governments, including the United States (US) and the European Union (EU). These sanctions have affected various industries and financial institutions, restricting the country’s access to global markets and Iranian businesses’ ability to purchase goods and services internationally.  

The restrictions have not omitted the Iranian aerospace sector. As such, it has struggled to maintain its fleet of aircraft, as even the acquisition of new airplanes is restricted by the US and EU, where Boeing and Airbus, respectively, are based. 

Iran-based airlines have used creative methods to acquire aircraft. The most recent example was the sudden so-called ‘disappearance’ of four Airbus A340 aircraft over the country. The planes departed from South Africa and were scheduled to arrive in Uzbekistan. Using Burkinabè registrations, namely XT-AKA, XT-AKB, XT-AKK, and XT-ALM, the aircraft began disappearing from flight tracking websites once they were flying above Iran. On December 28, 2022, Hassan Khoshkho, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Organization of Iran (CAO.IRI), confirmed the acquisition of the four A340s to local media. 

That was not the first time that airlines have used questionable means to acquire aircraft, parts, or even services to maintain their fleets and personnel. 

Punishing bad actors 

In several instances, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has identified and punished individuals as well as entities for helping sanctioned Iranian companies acquire certain goods. 

In 2018, for example, the OFAC identified a network of facilitators who, according to the OFAC, “have been procuring parts and providing services for the fleets of sanctioned Iranian airlines, including Mahan Air, Caspian Air, Meraj Air, and Pouya Air”. These were the words of Steven Mnuchin, the then-Treasury Secretary when the office cracked down on the network. Mnuchin also stated that the network extended a lifeline to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and subsequently Iran to “transport weapons, fighters, and money to its proxies, including Hizballah, and to prop up the brutal Assad regime”. 

He continued: “Countries and companies around the world should take note of the risks associated with granting landing rights and providing aviation services to the airlines used by Iran to export terrorism throughout the region. The deceptive practices these airlines employ to illegally obtain services and U.S. goods is yet another example of the duplicitous ways in which the Iranian regime has operated.” 

2018 marked an important year for US –Iran relations. During the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, he abruptly pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the country. 

“The US first started sanctioning Iran in 1980 as a result of the Iran hostage crisis. But up until 1994, trade between the two countries was quite expensive. In 1995, the Clinton administration eliminated almost all trade with Iran through two executive orders,” observed Trita Parsi, an author of several books about US-Iran relations and a professor of geopolitics a Georgetown University, in a written statement to AeroTime.  

Parsi also noted that George Bush and Barack Obama, the two successive presidents after Clinton, continued to push sanctions on various Iranian sectors, adding that the Trump administration, however, “turned Iran into the most sanctioned country on the face of the earth”. 

With the change of administrations in the White House, change was expected. Yet Parsi acknowledged that instead of returning to the Iranian nuclear deal, “Biden chose to renegotiate his return to the deal. That has so far proven inconclusive, and currently, negotiations are at a standstill”. In general, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the two countries to settle on a deal anytime soon, as “we are likely to see an escalation of tensions between Iran and the West in the next few months,” concluded Parsi. 

The OFAC imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and companies as recently as December 21, 2022, in retaliation to the government’s response to the protests in Iran. “We denounce the Iranian regime’s intensifying use of violence against its own people who are advocating for their human rights,” said Brian Nelson, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, when the office announced the new punitive measures. Meanwhile, the EU added four individuals and four entities to the list of subjects under sanctions on December 15, 2022. 

Iranian airlines navigating sanctions 

While severe restrictions have limited Iran-based airlines’ ability to acquire aircraft and parts, the companies used a limited window of opportunity to acquire airplanes to avoid having to deal with numerous mechanical issues that have plagued the country’s carriers for years. 

Maintaining such an ageing aircraft fleet, which is on average 26.7-years-old, according to planespotters.net, has not been an easy feat. Pilots have had to cope with extraordinary situations, such as the incident in October 2011 when Iran Air pilots had to deal with a jammed nose gear of a Boeing 727. The captain of the flight, Houshang Shahbazi, landed the 727 smoothly on the runway of Tehran Mehrabad Airport (THR), saving the lives of all 113 occupants (19 crew and 94 passengers) on board the narrow-body jet. Hailed as the Chesley Sullenberger of Iran (the US Airways pilot who landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York), Shabhazi later expressed his frustration with the situation. “Our planes are completely worn out,” he told the New York Times in July 2012, adding that the reality was that “each flight can be our last”.  

Since October 2011, there have been 20 incidents recorded by the Aviation Safety Network, a website that tracks airline accidents and incidents globally. The list includes the shooting down of a Ukrainian Airlines Boeing 737 when an IRGC operator accidentally fired two surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft because he mistook it for a threat. 

The window of opportunity arrived when the Obama administration lifted sanctions in January 2016. Iran Air, the country’s flag carrier, managed to quickly snap up aircraft from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM), namely 13 ATR 72-600 turboprops, delivered between May 2017 and August 2018, a single Airbus A321, delivered to the carrier straight from the factory in January 2017, and two second-hand Airbus A330s, handed over to the Iranian airline in March 2017. Other than that, it has had to fly second-hand aircraft, some of which had been flying for more than 30 years since they were first delivered to the airline in the 1990s. 

Differences of opinion in the US and the EU 

The OFAC has continued to pursue and punish people and companies helping Iranian airlines to acquire aircraft or related goods. 

“The Iranian regime uses commercial airlines to further the destabilizing agenda of terror groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force (IRGC-QF), and to fly fighters from their proxy militias across the region,” stated Sigal Mandelker, the then-Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in July 2019. “The international civil aviation industry, including service providers like general sales agents, brokers, and title companies, need to be on high alert to ensure they are not complicit in Iran’s malign activities,” continued Mandelker, as the office pointed out that entities “that continue to provide services to US-designated Iranian airlines like Mahan Air remain at risk of sanctions actions”.  

The list of said actions includes financial services, reservation and ticketing, freight booking and handling, procurement of aircraft parts and equipment, maintenance, ground services, catering, interline transfer/codeshare agreements, and refueling contracts. 

“The ITSR [the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations] prohibits the exportation, re-exportation, sale, or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located, of any goods, technology, or services (including aircraft and related goods, technology or services) to Iran, unless the transactions are exempt from regulation or authorized by OFAC,” read a document prepared by the US Department of the Treasury and published on July 23, 2019. The document also warned that “both U.S. and non-U.S. persons operating in the civil aviation industry face potential civil and criminal consequences for violating OFAC’s sanctions programs, including by engaging in unauthorized transfers of U.S.-origin aircraft or related goods, technology, or services to Iran”. 

However, while the Trump administration left the Iran Nuclear Deal, the EU is still committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and has not imposed new financial nuclear-related sanctions. The US also moved to remove all financial organizations from SWIFT, a financial messaging services provider which executes payments between banks and other financial institutions, in 2018. But the Belgium-based company only excluded some of those institutions.  

Being based in Belgium means SWIFT is in the jurisdiction of the EU, and, as such, is not forced to comply with US sanctions. Furthermore, the European bloc has enacted the Blocking Statute, which is designed “to mitigate the impact of U.S. unilateral sanctions on the interests of EU companies doing legitimate business in Iran,” according to a document by the EU.  

Human rights violation-related sanctions have remained in place in the EU.  

At the same time, the same document reiterated that if there was “significant non-performance by Iran of its commitments under the JCPOA and after having exhausted all recourse possibilities under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, the EU will reintroduce the lifted EU sanctions”. 

However, aircraft manufacturers have been reluctant to work with Iranian airlines. Since the delivery of the aforementioned airplanes to Iran Air, no newly-built aircraft have made it to Iran-based carriers. In 2021, Iran Air sent an inquiry to Boeing asking whether it would honor the two parties’ contract to send 80 aircraft to the Tehran-based airline, according to a Forbes report. The order included 50 Boeing 737 MAX and 30 Boeing 777s (15 777-300ER and 15 777X-9) but, according to a Boeing statement to The Guardian, the deal needed to be approved by the US government. Despite a final agreement between the US OEM and Iran Air in December 2016, Boeing has yet to deliver a single new aircraft to Iran Air.  

The same month the two sides finalized all the details, Airbus and the Iranian carrier also concluded negotiations and announced an order for 100 aircraft, split into 46 A320, 38 A330, and 16 A350s, with deliveries beginning in early 2017, according to a press release from Airbus. 

“This is a landmark agreement not only because it paves the way for Iran Air’s fleet renewal,” said Fabrice Bregier, the then-Airbus president and CEO. “Our overall accord includes pilot training, airport operations, and air traffic management so this agreement is also a significant first step in the overall modernization of Iran’s commercial aviation sector.” 

Before the aircraft could be shipped, though, the OFAC had to approve the order as, according to Airbus, “licenses are required for products containing 10% or more US technology content”. 

The order never materialized. 

Even the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), which recently delivered its first C919 to China Eastern Airlines, indicated that it would not sell its products to Iran. According to Zhao Yuerang, a COMAC Party committee member, “Iran is off the table”, he said during the Zhuhai Airshow in 2018, Reuters reported.

At present, the C919 uses the CFM International LEAP-1C engine. CFM International is a joint venture of US-based General Electric and France-based Safran Aircraft Engines, meaning that the OFAC would have to green flag any potential deal because the LEAP engine is assembled in two US locations, as well as one in France, according to GE Aerospace’s release in January 2018. 

Whether that situation would change if China eventually completes the development of the AECC CJ-1000A, a high-bypass turbofan engine for the C919, remains unclear. 

Training Iranian pilots in Europe 

The problem is not just acquiring aircraft and servicing them. Pilots, cabin crew, engineers, mechanics, and other personnel have to be trained in order to maintain their licenses and to attempt to ensure a safer aviation environment in Iran. 

After all, Iran has remained a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in April 1950, meaning that it partakes in various policy discussions and, once they are ratified, adopts them into its national regulations to standardize aviation globally.  

For example, according to the Regulation on Civil Aviation Air Crew published by the CAO.IRI in November 2019, simulators “used for pilot training, testing and checking, with the exception of developmental training devices used for flight test training, shall comply with the technical requirements and administrative procedures laid down in Part-ARA and Part-ORA and shall be qualified by any ICAO member states”. Much like elsewhere around the globe, Full-Flight Simulators (FFS) are used by crews to train, as well as renew their licenses using said simulators. 

The same regulatory document reads that a “pilot shall not operate an aircraft” unless they have carried out at least three take-offs, approaches, and landings in an aircraft of the same type and/or class, or an FFS that emulates the type and/or class of their aircraft, for instance. Applicants for an airline transport pilot license (ATPL) need to pass a skill test “to demonstrate the ability to perform, as PIC of a multi-pilot airplane under IFR, the relevant procedures and maneuvers with the competency appropriate to the privileges granted”, continued the regulations. “The skill test shall be taken in the airplane or an adequately qualified FFS representing the same type.” 

However, according to FlightGlobal’s Civil Simulator Census 2021, Iran had zero FFS at the end of 2021. Three manufacturers dominated the market in 2021, namely CAE, L3Harris, and Flight Safety International (FSI). It should be noted that “data is unrecorded for around 12%” of more than 1,500 FFS and other training devices, as indicated by the Census. 

FSI has declined to comment on the story. L3Harris indicated that it “provides pilot training in full compliance with U.S. and international laws and sanctions in the countries where we operate,” in a statement to AeroTime. “All of CAE’s export activities are performed in compliance with US, Canadian and EU export regulations,” read an emailed statement from Samantha Golinski, a CAE spokesperson, to AeroTime. Golinski added that the company’s devices “cannot be used to provide training to sanctioned countries, entities or persons”, because sales deals “contain clauses that impose all CAE customers to operate CAE devices in compliance with US and local sanctions regulations”. 

She added: “CAE cannot export any product to an entity owned (50% or more) or controlled by an Iranian national entity or person, wherever it is located in the world. Each transaction is reviewed to ensure compliance with export regulations.” 

But Iranian pilots and airlines had to look for simulators in order to train their pilots. But could Europe be one of the continents where they turned to? Multiple social media pictures and videos show flights crews from the country suggesting visits to Europe-based flight training schools. 

Iranian pilots training with SIMAERO and other flight schools

Multiple videos and pictures appear to show how Iran-based pilots have visited several flight schools throughout Europe. 

One pilot took videos inside an FFS, manufactured by CAE, whilst possibly at Sofia Flight Training, a training provider in Sofia, Bulgaria in April 2018. His post on the social media network Instagram included a carousel of pictures, where he posed in front of the flight school’s sign outdoors, and the said video near the FFS. The same pilot, whose bio reads that he is a captain on the McDonnell Douglas MD-88 and the Boeing 737, later posted multiple pictures with Taban Airlines, a carrier based in Iran, aircraft, including the airline’s template thank you note from a passenger addressed to him for flying them from Tehran to “the beautiful island of Kish” in December 2018.

Another pilot pictured an MD-80 simulator in January 2017, adding the caption that various “scenarios we face prepare us for real life situations, and Yes they have occurred”. The post included a geotag showing Sofia Flight School. The same month, a post, near an ATA Airlines MD-80, captioned “Time to fly” with the location tag suggesting that it was taken at Mashhad International Airport (MHD), in Mashhad, the second-most populous city in Iran. A picture from 2017 showed the pilot and another Captain, reading “Im currently flying for Caspian Airlines and he is in ATA [ATA Airlines]”. 

According to the OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (SDN List), Caspian Airlines has been subject to Secondary Sanctions since August 2014, when the carrier was added to the SDN for alleged “support to IRGC elements by transporting personnel, and illicit material, including weapons, from Iran to Syria”, read the office’s press release.  

EU-based businesses dealing with SDN-listed entities risk being listed as SDNs themselves, according to Bird & Bird, a London, United Kingdom-based law firm. Still, even if the Blocking Statute protects EU-based entities, “operators should ensure that their transaction is not related to an activity that may have military purposes, which are subject to restrictions under art. 5 of Council Regulation (EU) No 267/2012,” according to an emailed statement from Directorate-general for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (DG FISMA) of the EC to AeroTime.  

Furthermore, while there are no restrictions on exporting services or equipment from the EU to Iran if the ultimate beneficiaries are not subject to the bloc’s sanctions, “the beneficial owner remains, in any case, the Iranian entity or person, which must appear in the transaction”. 

“Article 41 of Regulation 267/2012 prohibits participation, knowingly and intentionally, in activities the object or effect of which is to circumvent the measures of the regulation,” read DG FISMA’s statement to AeroTime. 

The OFAC, meanwhile, indicated that the US “administers a comprehensive trade and investment embargo against Iran”, according to a statement from the Bureau of Industry and Security’s (BIS) Office of Congressional and Public Affairs to AeroTime.  

Sofia Flight Training did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

It is possible, that another school in France, namely SIMAERO, may have also welcomed Iranian pilots as recently as March 2022. A FlyPersia Boeing 737 pilot made a mini trip report, depicting his journey from Iran to France via Doha, Qatar, including a flight on a Qatar Airways Airbus A380.  The video also included shots inside training facilities, including a Boeing 737 simulator, video captions stated the video was taken “SimAero Training center”. Another pilot posted a picture in the capital of France, with the hashtag #simaero. He, later on, uploaded a story on his social media with a picture from an MD-80, registered as EP-CPU, belonging to Caspian Airlines.

“Being a global operator, the group complies with all international and local laws and regulations applicable to its operations,” read SIMAERO’s statement to AeroTime on December 28, 2022, issued via a Paris, France-located law firm. 

The French company has also possibly conducted business with SCD AERO, a self-described “Iranian specialist in the field of consulting for the aviation companies who want to establish cooperation in the aviation market of Iran”, where the entity is also based. “International banking transaction is one of the most important challenges for our clients. We deal with such problems through our special exchange agents and partner companies,” further read the Iranian company’s page. The Iranian company congratulated SIMAERO on the latter’s 20th anniversary in public posts on social media. However, news on SCD AERO’s website of representatives of both companies meeting have since been deleted, despite the announcement being available as of December 15, 2022. A cached version of the Iranian company’s website shows the meeting occurred on October 27, 2021.

SCD Aero’s Instagram page also had an announcement from May 2021, which since has been deleted, that the two companies partnered to resume recurrent training of MD pilots, following the inspection and approval of SIMAERO’s facilities by CAO.IRI.

“SCD AERO, in cooperation with SIMAERO and Iran Airtours [a subsidiary of Iran Air] facilitated the process of this training center audition and recurrent training-related requirements. We are honored to assist in the MD80 simulator fleet return to Iran,” read the now-deleted post. 

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