On Thursday, the US Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning two Iranian-backed militias which are fighting in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and an Iranian airline that carries weapons to Syria, as well as an Armenian company which acts as an agent for the airline.
One militia—the Fatemiyoun Division—consists of Afghan Shi’ites, recruited from among the estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran. The second militia—the Zaynabiyoun Brigade—consists of Pakistani Shi’ites, recruited largely from among poor and undocumented immigrants.
Both militias were designated terrorist organizations under the command and control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF.) They were also designated for serious human rights violations, because they forcibly recruit children into their ranks.
As a Treasury Department statement explained, children as young as 14 are coerced into fighting in Syria. More generally, Iranian authorities threaten undocumented men with arrest or deportation, but promise them legal residency, if they “volunteer” to fight in Syria.
The US also sanctioned Qeshm Fars Air, a company that operates cargo flights to Syria which transport weapons for the IRGC-QF and its militias.
“The delivery of lethal materiel by Qeshm Fars Air enables Iran’s military support for the Assad regime,” the Treasury Department stated, “prolonging the brutal conflict and the suffering of millions of Syrians.”
The company operates as a subsidiary of another Iranian airline, Mahan Air, which the US sanctioned already in December 2011, for the support it provided to the IRGC-QF.
On Monday, Germany announced a ban on Mahan Air flights to and from the country. Mahan Air had previously operated four flights a week from Tehran to German cities.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Steffen Seibert, said, “The airline transports weapons and fighters across the Middle East, supporting the Iranian regime’s destructive ambitions around the region.”
“It cannot be ruled out that this airline carries out transports to Germany that affect our security concerns,” he also explained. “This is especially true against the backdrop of terrorist activities, intelligence on terrorist activities from the Iranian side and Iranian entities in Europe in the past.”
In July, French and Belgium authorities disrupted an Iranian plot to bomb an opposition rally in Paris. The plot was orchestrated by an Iranian intelligence officer, posted to Iran’s embassy in Austria and operating under diplomatic cover. He was arrested in Germany, however, where he did not enjoy diplomatic immunity.
Three months later, Danish authorities thwarted another Iranian plot, aimed at assassinating an Iranian dissident living in Denmark.
The sanctions announced on Thursday also included a company based in the Armenian capital of Yerevan: Flight Travel LLC, which provides sales, administrative, and financial services to Mahan Air, according to the Treasury Department.
While welcoming the new US measures, some analysts also noted their limitations. Above all, they do not address the challenge posed by Iraqi-based Shi’ite militias under IRGC-QF control, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba and the Imam Ali Brigades, as David Adesnik, Director of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, noted.
The US House of Representatives is currently considering legislation that would impose sanctions on the first two of those militias. While the House endorsed such language last year, the Senate did not, and the measure failed.