Iran is allegedly smuggling weapons into Lebanon to the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah through the use of civilian aircraft.
Western intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Fox News that Iran’s Far Air Qeshm civil airline has been flying unusual routes from Tehran to Beirut with stopovers in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Iran and its Lebanese proxy are supporting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the seven-year civil war against rebels and militant groups. They have helped him to recapture large areas of territory his forces had lost in the early years of the conflict.
The officials shared two Far Air Qeshm flight routes from Tehran to Beirut that proved suspicious. One was a July 9 flight from an air base in the Iranian capital that stopped in Damascus before embarking on an “uncharacteristic” flight path to Beirut international airport.
Three members of the airline’s board are members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the elite force tasked with protecting the security of the state. It shuttered in 2013 before relaunching in March 2017.
The report said that the planes were carrying components to be used for manufacturing weapons at its factories in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
“The Iranians are trying to come up with new ways and routes to smuggle weapons from Iran to its allies in the Middle East, testing and defying the West’s abilities to track them down,” the report quoted a regional intelligence source as saying.
The State Department had not responded to The National's request for comment about the arms smuggling at the time of writing.
Iran has been smuggling weapons into Lebanon on civilian planes even before the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, according to Lina Al Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the international affairs think tank Chatham House.
"This practice has intensified with the Syrian war and with Iran's ally Hezbollah tightening its indirect control over Beirut International Airport. This indirect control is due to key personnel of the Airport Security apparatus being members of Hezbollah or loyal to the group," she told The National.
Lebanon’s aviation authorities have denied the accusation that Iranian flights are using Lebanese airspace to get arms into Syria and have maintained that the country’s international airport is only used for civilian purposes. But the accusations have continued and Ms Al Khatib says arms have been crossing into Syria.
“Before the Syrian conflict, Iranian weapons flown into Lebanon would mainly go to Hezbollah. Today, such weapons are also crossing into Syria to support pro-regime forces,” she continued.
The new detail comes as US President Donald Trump ups his campaign against the Iranian regime, pulling Washington out of the nuclear deal and railing against its funding of proxies in the Middle East and continued ballistic missile programme. The US, Israel and the European Union all consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist group propped up by Iran.
Tehran has regularly funded and trained the group to threaten Israel, the country with which it shares a border. The group has sent thousands of soldiers to Syria to bolster the ranks beating back the uprising against Al Assad’s rule.