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U.S. says firms helped Iranian airline skirt sanctions

By Anna Yukhananov

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nineteen people and companies in Europe and Asia acted as middlemen for Iranian airline Mahan Air, helping it procure supplies from the United States in violation of U.S. sanctions, the U.S. Commerce Department said on Wednesday.

The regulatory notice from the department posted online provided further insight into the operations of Mahan Air, a commercial airline that the United States has accused of providing funds and transport for Iran's elite forces and flying weapons to Syria.

The notice charged that the middlemen "engaged in the development and operation of an illicit aviation procurement network designed to evade the U.S. government's sanctions against Iran."

A majority of the companies and people are based in Turkey, and others are in Armenia, Greece, Iran, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. They included Greece's Aeolian Airlines and Armenia's Vertir Airlines, both small charter firms.

The Commerce Department added the firms to its "Entity List," which largely prohibits them from buying restricted items from the United States, such as aircraft engines or spare parts.

Under a longstanding U.S. trade embargo, U.S. companies are not allowed to sell goods to Iran without special permission from the government.

Mahan is one of only four Iranian airlines that has passed international safety audits, despite being blocked from legally buying U.S. spare parts.

The United States has strict restrictions on exports to Iran in part due to concerns the goods could also be used for military purposes or to support Tehran's nuclear program. The West suspects Iran's nuclear activities are aimed at producing nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran denies.

Commerce first blacklisted Mahan Air in 2008, after it found the company imported three Boeing Co 747 jumbo jets into Iran without U.S. authorization. Britain's Balli Group Plc later paid $2 million in criminal fines and $15 million in civil fines tied to the same charges.

Mahan Air later continued to violate U.S. export laws, trying to find ways to obtain aircraft, engines and computer motherboards from the United States, according to previous Commerce notices. The Treasury Department has also accused Mahan Air of ferrying troops, equipment and weapons to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war.

Under an interim deal reached between six world powers and Iran last month to ease a decade-long standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, Iran will be allowed limited purchases of aircraft parts and repairs, meant to help restore old aircraft that have faced a raft of safety issues.

(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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