Mystery solved? US-registered plane in Tehran was used by Ghana

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The mystery of a US-registered plane spotted at a Tehran airport this week and reported on by the New York Times has apparently been solved.

The US-registered Bombardier corporate jet, carrying the registration number N604EP, is owned and operated by a Ghana-based engineering firm, an aviation expert said Friday. The visitors it bought to Iran last week were senior Ghanaian officials, an Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman said Friday.

The US plane seen in Iran was chartered by Ghanaian officials, no American was on board, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Iranian media Friday, Mojtaba Mousavi and Shargh newspaper reported.

Tyler Bowron, an aviation expert at Cerretanni Aviation group in Boulder, Colorado, told Al-Monitor that the company that in fact owns and operates the plane is called Engineers and Planners, based in Accra, Ghana.

The Ghana firm “owns and operates” the plane, Bowron told Al-Monitor. “They are the owners of the airplane.” Bank of Utah, which is listed on Federal Aviation Agency documents as the trustee for the 22-seat corporate jet, “is just the trustee,” Bowron said. “They have nothing to do with it.”

The New York Times first reported Thursday on the mystery of the US “N-registered” plane seen by the paper at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport on Tuesday. The Blaze first reported Bowron’s identification of the Ghana firm that owns and operates the plane.

A Bank of Utah spokesperson said the bank was solely acting as a trustee for the airplane’s real owner.

“Bank of Utah… acts as trustee for aircraft of behalf of the beneficiary,” Scott H. Parkinson, senior vice president for marketing at the Bank of Utah, told Al-Monitor by email Friday. “The Bank has no operational control, financial exposure and is not a lender for this transaction.”

“The Bank’s trust agreements do not allow aircraft be used in any illegal activity,” Parkinson said.

International law experts said the US-registered plane, even if owned by a foreign entity, would have probably required a temporary sojourn license from the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to legally visit Iran. US officials declined to comment Friday on the specific facts of this case.

“We can’t comment on license applications or requests,” a Treasury Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor Friday.

U.S. Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”) prohibit the exportation of goods, services or technology directly or indirectly from the United States or by a U.S. person to Iran, and would generally prevent U.S.-registered aircraft from flying to Iran.

“A determination as to whether a violation of the ITSR has occurred is fact specific,” a source familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity, said.

The Ghana firm said to own the plane, Engineers and Planners, “was formed in 1997 to provide mining, construction and engineering services to the many mining companies that were setting up in Ghana at the time,” the firm said in a 2012 statement  concerning a plane it had acquired and would offer for lease.

“Recently, the company has entered into an agreement with an American Company to provide it with air services using a challenger 600 aircraft,” the company statement continued. “The arrangement makes the aircraft commercially available for rental by mining companies, oil service companies and other corporate institutions when not in use by Engineers and Planners.”

The company press statement identified its CEO as Mr. Ibrahim Mahama, the younger brother of Ghana’s then-Vice President H.E. John Dramani Mahama, who became Ghana’s president in July, 2012.

Engineers and Planner’s listed executive director, Adi Ayitevie, previously served as procurement manager at a Maryland-based firm, MNM Communications, that received several U.S. government contracts to provide construction services at US embassies abroad and domestic government and private facilities, including the FBI academy at Quantico, according to his Linkedin bio and the firm’s client list.

Iranian and Ghanaian officials have in meetings over the past year proclaimed mutual interest in cooperating on mining and other economic development projects, media reports show.

It is common for foreign entities to acquire US “N-registered” aircraft, using trusteeships such as those provided by the Bank of Utah, that conceal the owner’s identity, aviation and legal experts said.

(Photo of a US-registered corporate jet at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport last Tuesday by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times.)

U.S. releases funds to Iran as IAEA verifies compliance with nuclear deal


The United States said Thursday that it has released the latest tranche of $450 million to Iran based on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that Iran is complying with the terms of a six month interim nuclear deal.

The announcement came as US officials said that the US has taken steps to resolve problems Iran was alleged to have had accessing some funds.

“We can confirm that we have taken the necessary steps in all good faith pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action to facilitate the release of certain Iranian funds in the installments agreed,” a Treasury Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to its Board of Governors this week that Iran has diluted 75% of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium since the six month Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20th, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Based on this confirmation and consistent with commitments that the United States made under the Joint Plan of Action, the Department of Treasury took the necessary steps… to facilitate the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Thursday.

“As Iran remains in line with its commitments under the JPOA, the the US … will continue to uphold our commitments as well,” Harf said.

Iranian officials, under fire from hardliners suspicious of the nuclear negotiations, echoed the assessment that the six world powers were delivering the sanctions relief promised in the deal.

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, told Iran’s IRNA news agency Tuesday that to date, four installments of Iran’s frozen oil sale proceeds have been released to Iran per the deal’s terms, and that the “Central Bank of Iran has no problem in having access” to the funds, IRNA reported  Wednesday.

A fifth installment was expected to be released on Wednesday, IRNA cited Ravanchi.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is to receive a total of $4.2 billion in its oil sale proceeds held in foreign bank accounts, delivered in eight installments over six months, based on IAEA verification of its compliance.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif likewise defended the nuclear negotiations this week and said he believed both sides wanted to get a final deal and were negotiating in good faith.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif told Reuters in Abu Dhabi April 15th.  “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have held three rounds of talks in Vienna this year and are set to begin drafting the text of a final nuclear accord at their next meeting in May, with the aim of trying to conclude an agreement by the July 20th expiration of the interim deal.

Ahead of the fourth round of talks, to be held in Vienna starting on May 13th, experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold expert-level talks on the sidelines of a NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York the first week of May, Zarif said this week.

Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit


Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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World powers, Iran agree on roadmap for ‘marathon’ nuclear talks

Vienna_ The first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal negotiations concluded here Thursday with agreement on all the issues that need to be addressed and a timetable of meetings over the next four months to try to do so.

“We are at the beginning of a very difficult, complex process,” a senior U.S. official said Thursday. “It’s going to be both a marathon and a sprint….We have a long distance to cover in a short period of time.”

“We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced at a brief joint press conference with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Thursday morning.

“There is a lot to do,” Ashton said, in a statement that Zarif later gave in Persian. “It won’t be easy but we have made a good start.”

Political directors from six world powers as well as Zarif and Ashton and their teams will reconvene for the next meeting in Vienna on March 17th. That meeting will be preceded by technical experts consultations among the six powers and Iran, that seem like they will become almost ongoing throughout the next months as negotiators aim to advance a comprehensive accord.

“We all feel we made some progress,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a briefing here after the meeting concluded Thursday. “We can’t predict all ahead. But we do now have a path forward for how these negotiations will proceed.”

The US official described the meetings as “constructive and useful,” and said they discussed “both process and substance.” They had produced a “framework for going forward,” she said, although one that is apparently not yet officially on paper. “We are trying to do so in as open and transparent” a manner as possible, the U.S. official said, but “it’s critical to leave space for everyone’s points of view to be heard and taken into account.”

Regarding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s reported complaints about some recent US officials’ statements complicating his efforts to sell the negotiations at home, the U.S. official said the two sides had agreed to try to be thoughtful about what impact their statements to domestic audiences have in the other’s political space. Iranian hardliners have reacted negatively to Secretary of State John Kerry saying in a recent interview that “all options are on the table,” and to US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman telling a Senate committee this month that the comprehensive deal will address such issues as Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are mentioned in UN Security Council resolutions but are not strictly in the nuclear issue purview of the P5+1, according to the Iranians.

In turn, media coverage of Iran’s recent marking of the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, for example, has shown Iranian protesters proclaiming ‘death to America,’ some carrying posters denigrating President Obama and Sherman, among other frequent statements that antagonize Israel and the United States.

“Everybody in the negotiations have domestic audiences and partners with points of view; they say things the other side won’t like,” the US official said. “That is going to happen. What we agreed to try to do is be thoughtful [about the impact] those statements have on the negotiation. And to the extent that we can, try to be thoughtful.”

Indeed, the U.S. official seemed to show a greater degree of sensitivity to widespread Iranian frustration at remaining international sanctions after the recent interim nuclear deal, by talking up for the first time the legitimacy of some business activities now allowed under the six month deal, including auto and petrochemical sales. And she noted that it would be a positive thing if Iranians seeking fuller sanctions relief realized a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal could deliver that.

“If the message to Iran is, when Iran reaches a comprehensive agreement…there is a potential that sanctions would be removed, and therefore Iran would see a more normal business environment, so it’s important to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, that is a useful message,” the U.S. official said. “Sanctions are not an end in itself. We would like to lift them.”

“I think the Iranians see [the meeting] not too differently from what the Americans said publicly,” Reza Marashi, a former State Department official with the National Iranian American Council , told Al-Monitor Thursday in Vienna. “There are a lot of very difficult isues that need to be addressed, and which will require some creative thinking in order to address them.” But negotiators from both sides have gained confidence from their ability to get the interim nuclear deal last fall, despite moments of doubt.

“It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process and it’s fair for one to be skeptical, but it’s unfair to stop the sentence there,” Marashi cited what one senior Iranian negotiator told him Thursday. “To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the very difficult challenges ahead. We should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point.”

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference at the conclusion of comprehensive nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 20, 2014, by Shargh.)

Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

Counselor

utgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is likely to get tapped to become Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, senior US officials tell the Back Channel.

The job, currently held by Heather Higginbottom, is expected to open up if she is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. The Back Channel previously reported that Higginbottom, former deputy OMB chief and White House deputy domestic policy advisor, is being strongly considered for the second Deputy Secretary post, previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, and she appears to be the lead candidate.

Shannon declined to comment. The Back Channel previously reported that he was under consideration to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, but plans have since changed, officials said this week.

US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, Jr. is expected to stay on in Ankara for another year.

Secretary Kerry is expected to travel to Brazil this month

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Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–”the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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Official: US proposed map to Israel and Lebanon to advance maritime gas exploration

The United States has presented Lebanon and Israel with a map proposing how they might bypass their border disputes in order to advance exploration for natural gas buried under their territorial waters, a senior State Department official publicly revealed for the first time last week.

“The ideas we have presented for boundaries were addressed by the highest standards of cartography and science–not politics,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein told an Aspen Institute meeting on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues last week (November 29). “We believe they are the right boundaries.”

“This is not a matter of changing the borders. Let’s not confuse those,” Hochstein cautioned. However, he continued, “addressing these boundaries would remove at least one area of potential conflict between [Eastern Mediterranean] countries and give confidence to investors.”

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Syria goes dark

Syria on Thursday was abruptly cut off from the Internet, two leading US Internet analysis firms said. Many mobile phone communications in Syria appeared to be cut off too, the BBC and several news organizations reported.

“Starting at 10:26 UTC (12:26pm in Damascus), Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down,” an analyst with Internet monitoring firm Renesys wrote on the company’s blog  Thursday.  “In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet.”

“We are investigating the dynamics of the outage and will post updates as they become available,” the post continued.

Internet analysis firm Akamai confirmed the analysis, as seen in the graphic above.

The Syrian regime appeared to have cut off the telecom services, in what may be an attempt to make coordination harder for Syrian opposition forces, an activist outside of the country told Al Monitor. Continue reading

Exxon may pull out of southern Iraq

Exxon Mobil intends to pull out of southern Iraq, in favor of moving forward with its Kurdish oil contracts, an energy expert source told Al-Monitor Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The oil giant’s contracts with Iraq’s Kurdish entity have been a source of ongoing legal dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

Exxon Mobil informed the State Department this week of its intent to pull out of southern Iraq, Reuters subsequently confirmed Thursday, citing an unnamed American official.

Exxon had sought unsuccessfully to renegotiate the terms of its contract with Baghdad central government authorities, but Iraqi leaders had not been willing to set such a precedent, the western energy expert source said.

Baghdad will be even less inclined to do so if Exxon moves forward with its Kurdish Regional Government oil exploration contracts, Iraq expert Denise Natali said.

Exxon has signed contracts to start drilling in Kurdish Iraq by the end of the year, Ben Lando, of the Iraq Oil Report, reported Thursday. “The company ‘will start moving dirt in December,’” one official told Lando.

The oil giant may be gambling, however, that it can “leverage Baghdad through the KRG,” Natali told Al-Monitor Thursday. Unlike smaller oil companies, “it has lots of time.”

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