A judge in Argentina has blocked five Iranian crew members from a grounded Venezuelan cargo jet from leaving the country, temporarily seizing their passports pending a probe into possible links to Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Federal Judge Federico Villena on Monday ordered that the passports of the Iranian crew members be withheld "for a period of 72 hours" and that the police at Ezeiza International Airport "report on any movement" related to the Venezuelan Emtrasur Boeing 747 cargo plane that was grounded on June 8.
The Revolutionary Guards, Iran's ideological army, is on a US blacklist of foreign "terrorist organisations."
The latest development in what has become a geopolitical and diplomatic furore came just hours after government officials in Buenos Aires questioned declarations by the plane’s crew.
"After the entry of the plane, information was received from foreign organisations warning that part of the crew belonged to companies related to the the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran," Security Minister Aníbal Fernández told Radio Perfil on Monday.
Routine checks detected "things that were not logical,” added the minister.
“They had declared a crew that was smaller than the one that travelled and that led to an investigation that ended with the presentation of a habeas corpus [by their legal team] that was rejected and that is why the investigation continues," Fernández said.
The security minister said the Iranians were being held in a hotel and had been fingerprinted.
Officials originally said their passports had been taken but would be returned if they left the country on a scheduled flight while investigations continued into the plane's origins.
The Venezuelan Boeing 747 cargo plane, reportedly carrying car parts and with 14 Venezuelan and five Iranian crew members – an unusually large crew – has been held at Ezeiza Airport since June 8.
Fernández said Monday that the plane had previously been in Paraguay in May and headed for Ezeiza on June 6 but conditions eventually forced it to land in Córdoba. It arrived at Ezeiza two days later.
Judge Villena took his decision after accepting a request from the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA) to become a plaintiff in the investigation as a representative of the local Jewish community, claiming "legitimate interest in the investigation."
Over the weekend, both the DAIA and AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) Jewish groups had requested “exhaustive and detailed information on the list of crew members.”
Argentina considers the presence of Iranian travellers to be particularly sensitive due to the alleged role of Iranians in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre, which left 85 people dead and 300 injured.
Local press reports said the plane had been bought by Venezuela’s state cargo line Emtrasur from Iran's Mahan Air, which is under investigation in the United States for alleged links to Tehran's military forces.
‘Propaganda’ campaign claims
Iran hit back earlier Monday, saying that the grounded plane is part of a “propaganda” campaign against Tehran, amid tensions with Western countries over negotiations to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.
The grounding came days before Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Tehran on Saturday, where Iran and Venezuela signed a 20-year deal on cooperation between the allies that are both subject to US sanctions.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters on Monday that the incident was part of efforts aimed to "cause a feeling of insecurity."
The plane was sold by Iran's Mahan Air to a Venezuelan company last year, he said, noting that "its crew members are not Iranians only" but included others of different nationalities.
"These recent weeks are filled with propaganda, are full of psychological operations, these wars of words that want to infiltrate the minds and composure of the people... this news is one of those," Khatibzadeh said.
On Sunday, authorities in Argentina said no personnel had been officially detained and that the crew had been accommodated in hotels with temporary residence permits.
The Iranians' passports were taken, but the authorities in Buenos Aires said they would be returned if they left the country on a scheduled flight while investigations are ongoing.
The incident came as a resolution was adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors censuring Iran for its lack of cooperation.
Talks in the Austrian capital, which began in April last year, aim to return the US to the nuclear deal, including through the lifting of sanctions on Iran, and to ensure Tehran's full compliance with its commitments under the agreement.
The deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme to guarantee that it could not develop a nuclear weapon – something Tehran has always denied wanting to do.
Iran said Monday that all measures it has taken to roll back on its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers are "reversible."