Iran's Revolutionary Guard in formation in a file photo. Image: Getty via AFP

Iranian planes landing in Myanmar have raised speculation of secretive military-to-military cooperation, including possible sensitive Iranian weapons sales amid rising international calls to impose an arms embargo on the rights-abusing junta.

Diplomatic sources based in Southeast Asia who requested anonymity said that an Iranian delegation that landed in Myanmar on January 13 was either the second or third to visit since the military seized power and suspended democracy in a February 1, 2021, coup.  

Iran is accused of providing military equipment and weapons to several repressive regimes, as well as to Tehran-aligned belligerents in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But Iran is not known to have military ties to Myanmar, which relies mostly on Russia and China as well as India for its armaments.

Moreover, in 2017, the deputy head of the Iranian Parliament called for the creation of joint military forces by Muslim countries to stop Myanmar military violence against ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims that has driven hundreds of thousands into neighboring Bangladesh and the United Nations has said could constitute “genocide.”

According to data on Flightradar24, a plane owned by the Iranian cargo airline Qeshm Fars Air flew from Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, to Myanmar last Thursday. The plane returned to Iran from Myanmar the following day, the flight tracker data reveals.  

“This is the second time I have noticed an Iran flight. It is understood [to be] communication related to military technology,” Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), told Asia Times. 

“Military relations between [Myanmar’s] military junta, which seeks to adopt a military authoritarianism, and a country like Iran can be said to be a worrying situation, not only for atrocities against the Myanmar people but also from a regional and international security perspective,“ she added.

In 2019, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Qeshm Fars Air for allegedly transporting weapons to Tehran-backed groups in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force (IRGC-QF), a military unit specialized in unconventional warfare. 

Qeshm Fars Air is under US sanctions but is flying freely to Myanmar. Image: Wikiwand

In announcing the sanctions, the US Treasury’s  Office of Foreign Assets Control specified two Qeshm Fars Air-owned aircraft of concern, one of which, with the registration “EP-FAA”, appears to have been the plane that flew to Myanmar last week, according to flight tracker services. 

Qeshm Fars Air, which originally operated as a commercial airline between 2006 and 2013, restarted operations in 2017, and its fleet of two B747 aircraft have operated regular cargo flights to Damascus, delivering cargo, including weapons shipments, on behalf of the IRGC-QF, the US sanctions order said, warning those who provide support to the airline risk sanctions themselves.

The Irrawaddy, a local news outfit, reported before the coup in early January 2020 that an Iranian plane had briefly stopped at Naypyidaw’s airport that month. Sources then told the newspaper that it may have been delivering military cargo.

Asia Times has not been able to find reports in Iranian media of the visits to Myanmar by Iranian delegations since the coup, nor confirm the purpose of the Iranian delegation visiting Myanmar last week. 

However, Asia Times has seen what appears to be a list of names of the Iranian visitors on last week’s delegation, as well as those who visited some months ago.

An Iranian analyst, who also requested anonymity, said that some of the names are the same as Iranian individuals with links to the military, including to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Asia Times could not immediately confirm independently whether they are the same people. 

Nor is clear what type of weaponry Iran could offer Myanmar that would give the Tatmadaw a potential new edge in its confrontation with a burgeoning anti-coup popular resistance, including new People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) that are attacking the junta across the country. 

Sources monitoring the recent Iranian flights suggest Tehran may be offering to provide Myanmar’s junta with guided missiles, a procurement that would raise eyebrows in neighboring nations including Thailand and India. The junta has increasingly used aerial bombardments and helicopter-borne gun attacks against resistance forces.

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw is planning a massive offensive against newly formed people’s defense forces. Photo: Facebook

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed by security forces since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group. Reports of military torture, rape and executions are commonplace on Myanmar social media.

The NUG, a shadow government set up last April by ousted parliamentarians and civil-society groups, declared a “people’s defensive war” in September and has called for armed resistance against the junta. 

The European Union has proposed a binding international arms embargo on Myanmar in response to the coup and post-coup abuses. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution last year calling on all states to “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”

However, analysts reckon that it will be difficult to stop the sale of munitions and equipment to the junta even if an embargo is imposed, which seems unlikely.

“China and Russia, the two largest providers [of weaponry], are likely to block any UN Secretary Council resolution or abstain,” said Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University.

Some NUG members have said that an international embargo should only be imposed on arms sales to the junta and not its supporters.

At the same time, there are rising calls for democratic Western countries to supply weapons to outgunned anti-junta forces, who are currently relying on ethnic armed organizations and other groups along the border with Thailand for their until now meager arms.

Shawn W. Crispin provided reporting from Bangkok.