A Qantas jet formerly known as City of Tamworth is at the centre of a US investigation into a sophisticated plot to funnel three jumbos originally owned by the airline to Iran, in defiance of strict trade sanctions.
Qantas sold the passenger jets to a company in the Middle East, which hatched the plan to send the jumbos to Iran.
The planes were shifted between related companies in the United Arab Emirates and the west African country of Gambia over 16 months.
One of the jets – previously named the City of Tamworth – ended up in Iran in March last year, before US authorities intervened to prevent the other two 747s joining it there.
The revelations include details of how the firm to which Qantas had sold the three jumbos had created a front company in Gambia to help it get the planes to Iran without raising suspicions.
An aircraft leasing company in California has lodged a formal complaint against Qantas with the US State Department.
CSDS Aircraft Sales and Leasing alerted US investigators about Qantas selling the jumbos to Sayegh Group Aviation in the UAE, and the existence of the front company in Gambia.
The investigators found that the Gambian firm had been “created as a ‘clean’ company for the purpose of facilitating the lease of the 747s to an Iranian airline or airlines”.
CSDS says Qantas did not do its homework on the buyers of its jumbo jets.
“What it comes down to is that Qantas could have easily smelt it a long way away if they really wanted to,” said CSDS president Benedict Sirimanne. “If we felt there was something there, they could have easily felt it.”
But Qantas said it had met all its legal obligations and had taken “all reasonable precautions in respect of the sale of the three 747s to Sayegh Aviation Group”.
The airline also pointed out that Sayegh was not “subject to any US regulatory investigation or process” when it sold the jets to it in August 2010.
“Whenever we sell an aircraft, we carry out extensive due diligence on the buyer,” a spokesman said.
Iran is at the top of countries blacklisted by the US and other Western nations, including Australia.
The US’s heavy trade sanctions are aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and extend to the export of planes and aircraft parts to the Islamic republic.
Aban Air, the Iranian airline which took the keys to what had been the City of Tamworth, wanted to fly it between its base in the Iranian capital Tehran and Bangkok in Thailand.
According to the US Bureau of Industry and Security, the boss of Sayegh had indicated that the other two jumbos – previously known as the City of Mildura and the City of Geraldton – had been flown in and out of various countries in the Middle East, including Syria.
“He admitted that the transactions were structured so that the lease to Aban Air [in Iran] would appear to be through a ‘clean’ company, Aviation Legacy [in Gambia],” the enforcement agency said.
In placing the ban on Sayegh and its associates, US authorities ruled that the “conduct in this case is deliberate, significant, and likely to occur again” without their intervention.
The case raises questions about the obligations of aircraft sellers such as Qantas to find out the bona fides of buyers to ensure their planes do not end up in the wrong hands.
CSDS, which blew the whistle, had sought information several times from the Australian airline about the planes it had for sale, including the 747s.
But it claims Qantas’ aircraft sales department turned it down, preferring to deal with the Middle Eastern company which is at the centre of the controversy.
Qantas says it’s not responsible for the sale of a jumbo jet to Iran in a deal that was made by a Dubai-based leasing company in defiance of strict trade conditions.
The national carrier says it’s been made aware that one of three 747s it sold to the leasing company, Sayegh Aviation Group, had ended up in Iran in March last year.
Qantas, in a statement on Saturday, said it met all “legal obligations and took all reasonable precautions in respect of the sale” in 2010.
It said Sayegh Aviation Group was not at the time of sale “subject to any US regulatory investigation or sanctions”.
“It’s drawing a long bow to suggest that we’re responsible for the
conduct of other companies who owned or leased the aircraft several transactions after the original sale,” a Qantas spokesman said.