Mystery solved? US-registered plane in Iran owned by Ghana firm

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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 plane was chartered by Ghanaian officials, no American was on board, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Iranian media Friday, journalist 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. Bank of Utah, which is listed on Federal Aviation Agency records 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 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. expects drafting of Iran final nuclear deal to begin in May


Six world powers and Iran are on pace to start drafting the text of a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord in May, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the July 20th expiration of the six month interim deal, a senior U.S. official said Friday ahead of the third round of final deal talks in Vienna next week.

“We have set out a work plan on how to proceed to get a comprehensive agreement…and we are on pace with that work plan and look to begin drafting in May,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a conference call briefing Friday.

“All of the parties are committed to finishing within the six-month [duration of the] Joint Plan of Action,” the official said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can.”

“So the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper,” the U.S. official said. “It’s about the choices Iran has to make, some very difficult, in order to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“They will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices,” the official said. “But the drafting is certainly doable.”

There have been no additional US-Iran bilateral meetings outside of those that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran meetings in Vienna and been announced, another senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.

As to whether it is accurate to detect that US officials are expressing more confidence about reaching a final deal, in particular in the six month time frame without needing an extension since comprehensive deal talks got underway, the second U.S. official affirmed that may be the case.

“I think you’re right to say increasing confidence since the talks started – everyone has kept their commitments in implementing the JPOA, we’re having substantive and detailed discussions about the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement,” the second senior U.S. official said.

But “we are still clear-eyed about how tough this will be,” the second U.S. official added. “The real question is if everyone is willing to make the tough choices this will require.”

The first two rounds of comprehensive deal P5+1/Iran talks to date, supplemented by intensive expert-level talks, have been used to “to go over every single [element of] a future agreement and to make sure we understand each others’ positions on those issues, both at the macro level and the technical level,” the first senior U.S. official said.

Even the early rounds of comprehensive deal talks focused on agenda setting and “laying the table” for drafting the comprehensive accord have been “quite substantive,” the official said.

“When you lay the table, you get down to…serious issues…and in those discussions, one begins to see areas of agreement and areas where [there are] still gaps that have to be overcome,” the official said.

The official spoke in the wake of the release of reports this week by the former top State Department Iran arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, and a Princeton nuclear expert team, that propose ways Iran could keep but modify key facilities in its nuclear program in a final deal, while reducing international proliferation concerns and extending its nuclear breakout time to between six months and a year. Iran has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a domestic enrichment program and that it would not dismantle key facilities, but has expressed willingness to make modifications to the Arak reactor.

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Congress likely to hold off on Iran sanctions, Senator proposes defining final deal


After top US officials testified Thursday on the Iran nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, the chair of the Senate Banking panel appeared to speak for the majority of the body when he cautiously endorsed the Obama administration’s call that Congress hold off on new Iran sanctions for now, but warned that lawmakers would act swiftly if Iran and six world powers are unable to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement in negotiations over the next six months.

Even as the Obama administration got welcome signs Congress would likely hold off on new Iran sanctions legislation for the rest of the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said that he would consider drafting a resolution on what the final agreement with Iran should include–potentially adding another complication to the already difficult diplomatic task at hand.

“I’m beginning to think… that maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the end game and at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status,’ Menendez (D-New Jersey) told the US officials who testified on the Iran deal at the Senate Banking committee hearing Thursday.  “Because I’m getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the administration] as the final status versus what …the Congress might view as acceptable.”

While several Senators expressed skepticism about whether Iran could be trusted, they also expressed hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute, and appeared inclined to acquiesce for now to the administration’s case that the current moment of productive engagement warranted a pause in new pressure that could shift the Iranian political dynamic back in favor of hardliners.

“If no final deal is reached [or] Iran fails to comply with the first step agreement, this committee will act swiftly to impose a new round of sanctions,” Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said at the conclusion of the hearing, which featured as witnesses top US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary of Treasury David Cohen. “In the meantime, I agree with today’s witnesses that a pause on new sanctions legislation is justified to see if such a deal is possible.”

“I think all of us want to see a diplomatic solution to Iran and have been encouraged by the fact that the administration has been dealing with them in this way,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) told the hearing.

But, Corker added, the text of the six month, Phase 1 “Joint Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva on November 24, had elements of concern to him.  Among them, he said, why Iran is able to still pursue physical construction to the still-uncompleted Arak heavy water facility during the Phase 1 deal, though it cannot build any elements that would fuel it; and will now provide International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors regular access to, as well as long sought design information on the site. Corker also asked whether the US had tacitly agreed that Iran would have enrichment in an end state deal.

“Do the officials in Iran think that we’ve agreed to allow them to enrich?” Corker asked Under Secretary Sherman. “I mean, every press statement they’ve made says that, how could there be such a big understanding over such an important issue?”

“What we have said to Iran… is that yes, we will talk with them about the potential for a very limited enrichment program, matched to practical needs, with staggering constraints, monitoring, and verification, if, if, if they agree to everything else that we want agreed to,” Sherman responded, going on to note the UN Security Council resolutions demand that Iran suspend, but not permanently end, enrichment. Continue reading

Obama officials ask Congress to delay new Iran sanctions


The Obama administration is asking Congress to delay new economic sanctions on Iran in order to give momentum to negotiations on a possible nuclear compromise.

“We think that this is a time for a pause [in new sanctions], to see if these negotiations can gain traction,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Voice of America Persian Service in an interview Friday.

Members of Congress have “been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation,” she said. “We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”

Three White House officials—Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Phil Gordon, the National Security Staff Coordinator for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and NSS Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar – met with aides to Senate leaders on Thursday to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions legislation being considered by the Senate Banking Committee, a Senate staffer said.

Sherman also briefed House leaders earlier this week on her negotiations with Iran and other members of the P5+1 in Geneva last week.

Diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold another round of negotiations in Geneva November 7-8.

Technical talks involving nuclear and sanctions experts from Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna October 30-31, the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday.

The US team to the technical talks in Vienna will include Sherman’s deputy and top advisor on arms control issues James Timbie, State Department deputy Iran sanctions official Richard Nephew, who previously served at the NSC and Energy Department; and Treasury Department sanctions office chief Adam Szubin, US officials told Al-Monitor. (Meantime, State Department Iran sanctions czar Daniel Fried was in Europe this week for consultations with European counterparts on the EU sanctions regime.) Iran’s delegation to the Vienna talks will be led by Hamid Baidinejad, the Iran Foreign Ministry director of political and international development, Nasim reported, adding that the Iranian team will include legal, nuclear, technical and economic experts.

Israeli diplomats, in Washington for consultations this week, urged their US counterparts to press for a deal that would dismantle as much as possible of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including its entire domestic enrichment program. They also pressed for no let-up in existing sanctions for nuclear concessions that Iran might agree to make in an interim deal, including suspending 20% enrichment.

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Al-Monitor Tuesday. Iran is entitled to “civilian nuclear energy. …The only request, is that they buy nuclear fuel from” abroad.

Iranian diplomats told their P5+1 counterparts at meetings in Geneva this month that they would be willing to discuss various elements of Iran’s nuclear program to find a compromise to address international concerns, but did not offer a very concrete, detailed proposal, several diplomats said.

The P5+1 have asked Iran to bring a more concrete proposal to the next meetings, the diplomatic sources said.

Sherman, in her VOA interview, also seemed to express regret for her comments at a Senate hearing last month that deception is in the Iranian DNA.

“I chose some words in response to a member of the Senate that I think caused some concern,” Sherman told VOA’s Siamak Dehghanpour. “And I think that those words spoke to this deep mistrust that President [Barack] Obama [has] discussed… We have to really work to get over that mistrust, and I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so.”

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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‘Eerie quiet’ at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar after protests

Tehran’s usually bustling Grand Bazaar was “eerily quiet” on Thursday, a day after rare protests over Iran’s plummeting currency swept through the heart of the Iranian capital.

The Grand Bazaar “was mostly shuttered, with only a few street-side shops open,” Agence France Press reported.

“America wants us to bend, but we have our pride,” a clothing merchant at one of the few open shops told the AFP.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked about the protests Wednesday, said sanctions had likely not been a key factor in Iran’s recent currency woes. But she said, Iran could move swiftly to exit the situation by “working with the P5+1″ to ease international concerns over its nuclear program.

European foreign ministers would probably announce additional sanctions on Iran at a meeting mid October, a senior European diplomat, speaking on background Wednesday, said. The measures would likely focus on closing loopholes in a European ban on the import of Iranian oil that went into full effect in July, and on cutting off banks that deal with Iran’s banking sector.

The diplomat said that a meeting of the P5+1 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week had been very short and almost symbolic, deciding chiefly that the group’s public message would be to stress its “unity.”

But perhaps belying that message, the diplomat revealed that while Clinton and foreign ministers from France, the UK, Germany and China attended the ministerial meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russia had not sent its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, but rather its lower level UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin. Continue reading

US allows financial support for armed Syrian rebels


The U.S. government has authorized a U.S. group to provide financial and logistical support to the armed Syrian resistance, I report on the front page.

The waiver was received from the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) last week, Brian Sayers, of the Syrian Support Group, told Al- Monitor in an interview Friday.

“The OFAC decision is huge,” Sayers said. “It gets us the leeway to support the Free Syrian Army in broad terms.”

A photograph of the OFAC letter seen by Al Monitor showed that it was signed by a Treasury Department official on July 23. (The document has since been removed from the Internet.)

Sayers, an American who previously worked for six years in NATO operations in Brussels, was hired last spring by the Syrian Support Group to work Washington to “support the Free Syrian Army in different ways.”

But one Syrian source, speaking anonymously, suggested the Syrian Support Group’s mission is not only about lobbying the US government to provide support to the FSA, but also the reverse: to help turn the FSA into a more organized entity that could receive intelligence and other assistance from Western security agencies.

To that end, all nine members of the FSA’s military command this week signed on to a previously unpublished “Declaration of Principles” pledging their commitment to pluralism and democracy. “We believe in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that honors and upholds freedom of expression, thought and conscience,” the document states. Continue reading