Seyed Abood Sari landed at Vancouver airport on Jan. 17, 2019, and told border agents he was visiting his sons, but he was flagged and detained.
At a hearing four days later, a Canadian official disclosed that Sari was under investigation for his alleged role in an Iranian airline under sanction “for providing service to terrorist organizations.”
Mahan Air was sanctioned a decade ago for allegedly transporting weapons and personnel for the Quds Force branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
Under questioning in Vancouver, Sari told Canadian officials he knew about the sanctions but “needed the money” and “did not care what they were doing,” the Canadian official alleged at his detention hearing.
After verifying that Sari was wanted by the FBI, the RCMP arrested him on U.S. charges, alleging he was a “principal player” in front companies that helped Mahan Air evade sanctions.
“In particular, Mr. Sari is sought for extradition on the basis that he made misrepresentations to U.S. financial institutions to cause them to unwittingly conduct international U.S. dollar transfers on behalf of Mahan Air,” according to the B.C. Supreme Court.
His extradition hearing is scheduled to begin in B.C. Supreme Court on April 14.
The case, which has escaped public attention until now, is one of several before Canada’s courts that involve allegations of evading sanctions on the Iranian regime.
“Mr. Sari is being afforded a fair process before the British Columbia Supreme Court in accordance with extradition law and our treaty with the United States,” Department of Justice spokesperson Ian McLeod said.
Sari’s lawyer, Michael Bolton, said his client was “contesting whether there is any basis for the U.S. extradition request.”
“We will not be making any out of court comments at this time.”
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Despite its similarities to the case of Meng Wanzhou, arrested at Vancouver airport a month earlier, Sari’s extradition has avoided headlines.
Like the Huawei executive, Sari faces charges in the U.S. for alleging defrauding banks in relation to the Iran sanctions.
In yet another Iran sanctions case, Toronto police arrested a man in January on the basis of an extradition request by the U.S., which has charged him with allegedly shipping goods to Iran in violation of sanctions.
His brother, a second-year McGill University dental student who fled Iran in 2013, was arrested in North Carolina for his alleged role in the same suspected conspiracy.
Global News reported in December that an Iranian businessman photographed with a Liberal MP was accused by Canadian intelligence of helping Iran skirt sanctions and move millions into Canada.
“It’s not clear if these cases are becoming more common because we’ve seen very little evidence of sanctions enforcement in Canada to date,” said terrorism financing expert Jessica Davis of Insight Threat Intelligence.
“It’s also unclear if these cases involve significant Canadian connections such as companies, financial transactions, etc., or if they simply involve the transit of some of the key individuals through Canada.”
A citizen of Iran and resident of the United Arab Emirates, Sari is accused of being general manager of Mahan Air’s Dubai office, an allegation he denies.
Based in Tehran, Mahan Air has flown Quds Force personnel “to and from Iran and Syria for military training,” according to the U.S. Treasury, which sanctioned the airline in 2011.
Mahan Air is also on Canada’s sanctions list.
To skirt the sanctions, Mahan Air has routed its international payments through front companies, the U.S. charges allege.
A 2016 FBI search of email accounts turned up evidence Sari was “directly involved” in some of those transactions and an arrest warrant was issued in 2018, according to an RCMP affidavit.
“Business and financial records sent to or from email accounts used by Mr. Sari and other Mahan Air officers show that a major responsibility of the Mahan Air’s Dubai Office is to make international payments to Mahan Air’s suppliers and service providers,” according to an RCMP affidavit cited by the court.
“Mahan Air’s international payments were made using other companies established in the UAE, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere that had no apparent connection to Mahan Air, to fraudulently conceal from banks the fact that the payments violated the sanctions and the banks’ compliance policies.”
He told the Canada Border Services Agency his employer was Jahan Destination Travel and Tourism, which was the “general sales agency” for Mahan Airlines, according to a Canadian official.
Jahan Destination Travel was added to the U.S. sanctions list in December 2019 for its alleged ties to Mahan Air.
According to the Canadian official, Sari “provided information on the type of work that he did for Mahan in that he was the general manager of Jahan, which handled all the Mahan ticketing, hotel bookings, and financial transactions in the United Arab Emirates.”
“Mr. Sari informed the officer that he was aware that Mahan Airlines was a sanctioned company, that everyone is aware of that, and that they were in the news and believed to send troops and weapons to Syria.”
“When asked why he would continue to work for a company that was sanctioned, he indicated it was because he needed the money and that he did not care what they were doing,” the Canadian official told the hearing.
In January, Sari asked the B.C. Supreme Court for copies of documents held by Canadian authorities, arguing they could demonstrate the evidence against him was unreliable.
He said he had conducted only “limited functions” at Dubai airport on behalf of Mahan Air and was not a “principal” in the banking transactions in question.
Meanwhile, Sari has alleged the CBSA interviewed him and searched his electronic devices “to assist with the gathering of evidence” of the U.S. charges, which he called an abuse of process.
“He contends that the CBSA officers, in the guise of assessing his admissibility to Canada, were really conducting an investigation for their U.S. counterparts regarding a charge of fraud of which he was unaware,” according to the court.
The judge granted his request for documents.
The CBSA declined to comment.
Sari was released on bail in July 2019.
Mahan Air has played an “integral role” in supporting the Quds Force, and formerly transported its commander, Qassem Soleimani, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq on Jan. 3, 2020.
Shortly after Soleimani’s death, the Revolutionary Guards fired missiles at a base in Iraq where Canadian troops were stationed, and downed a passenger plane leaving Tehran, killing dozens of Canadian citizens and residents.
The Iranian regime has claimed the tragedy was an accident.
According to Public Safety Canada, the Quds Force is “responsible for extraterritorial operations, and for exporting the Iranian Revolution through activities such as facilitating terrorist operations.”