Utah plane in Iran: Mystery solved

Utah plane in Iran: A plane owned by the Bank of Utah carried an African business delegation to Iran. The plane's presence in Iran raises questions about whether the Utah bank has violated US sanctions on Iran.

Marie-Lan Nguyen
An aircraft similar to this Bombardier Challenger 605 at the 2007 International Paris Air Show was spotted in Iran. The aircraft is owned by the Bank of Utah but leased to the government of Ghana.

Iran says that a plane which landed in Tehran airport flying the American flag was leased to Ghana's presidential office and carrying a business delegation from the African nation.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that a plane owned by the Bank of Utah was parked in Mehrabad Airport in Tehran on Tuesday.
Its presence was noteworthy as the United States and Iran have been at loggerheads for decades and the Islamic Republic is subject to certain economic sanctions.

State news agency IRNA on Friday night quoted Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying that the plane was transporting the brother of Ghana's president and a mining delegation.

"The plane is on lease to Ghana's presidential office, and its passengers were Ghanaian senior officials led by the president's brother. None of its crew members were American," Afkham was quoted as saying.

The Ghanaian delegation was in Iran to follow up on agreements reached between the two countries two years ago, she said, adding that it departed on Thursday.

The New York Times said it had reviewed a confidential document which showed that "the plane is held in a trust by the Bank of Utah and on behalf of the mining company, Engineers and Planners, which is based in Accra".

It quoted a Bank of Utah executive, Brett King, as saying the company had no idea why the plane was at the airport and it was investigating further.

There was no immediate comment from Ghanian officials.

Iran and world powers are engaged in negotiations over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme. Some international sanctions imposed over its programme have been eased temporarily after a deal was reached last year. Washington has said the lifting of sanctions can only happen "in total" after a comprehensive deal is reached.

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped up a to expand ties with African countries, though his campaign yielded little in terms of trade and votes at the United Nations against sanctions targeting its nuclear program.

The Associated Press reports:

Scott Parkinson, senior vice president for marketing and communication with the Ogden-based bank, said the financial institution is aware of the plane in Iran but is not investigating at this point.

"As far as the legality of that, flying into that country, that's really between the beneficiary and the Department of State, and maybe the FAA," Parkinson said. "Not us."

But the practice has drawn scrutiny from the federal government recently.

A government watchdog warned last June and again in January that non-U.S. citizens have registered 5,600 planes with the Federal Aviation Administration through trustees, concealing the owners' identities.

Under FAA regulations, this can be done by the owner creating an agreement to transfer the plane's title to a trustee that is a U.S. citizen. The trustee then registers the plane. The agreements provide little information on the identity of the owner or who uses the plane, according to a memorandum by the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General.

In 47 registrations closely examined by the inspector general, the non-U.S. citizen who created the trust had complete authority to remove the trustee, and thus control over the plane.

Just five trustees accounted for 3,283 of the planes registered on behalf of non-U.S. citizens, the memorandum said. One trustee required the inspector general to obtain a subpoena before complying with a request for information.

Parkinson stressed that his bank performs due diligence that is required by regulators in terms of aircraft ownership. "Our trust agreements are very clearly outlined that we don't allow any illegal activity, obviously, with these assets."

( Editing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Yara Bayoumy)

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