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US imposes sanctions on Iranian airline and shipping network

US Treasury accuses Iranian airline and shipping network of transporting weapons from Iran to Yemen's Houthi rebels
Mahan Air has previously been blacklisted for allegedly supporting Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AFP)

The United States imposed sanctions on an Iranian airline and a commercial shipping network, accusing the companies of smuggling weapons from Iran to Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Treasury Department said on Wednesday that it was freezing any US assets held by Mahan Air, after it targeted three of the company's sales agents for their alleged roles in weapons proliferation.

"The Iranian regime uses its aviation and shipping industries to supply its regional terrorist and militant groups with weapons, directly contributing to the devastating humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. "Aviation and shipping industries should be vigilant and not allow their industries to be exploited by terrorists."

The US singled out Mahan Air in 2011, accusing the airline of ferrying operatives from Iran's Quds Force and Lebanese group Hezbollah across the Middle East.

The Treasury Department accuses the airline of transporting operatives, weapons, equipment and funds abroad, as well as flying fighters to Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and its China-based subsidiary, E-Sail - a shipping network led by Iranian businessman Abdolhossein Khedri - were also blacklisted on Wednesday.

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"These designations should serve as a warning that doing business with IRISL, E-Sail, or Mahan Air risks contributing to Iran's proliferation-sensitive programs, including its nuclear and missile programs," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

The sanctions decision "makes America great", Pompeo added.

The move comes just days after a prisoner swap between the US and Iran, a rare act of cooperation since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 Iran nuclear accord with world powers.

Since then, Trump's administration has embarked on a "maximum pressure" campaign that's seen successive rounds of sanctions slapped on Iranian officials and entities.

The prisoner swap, facilitated by the Swiss government, was viewed as a potential breakthrough between Washington and Tehran after months of escalating tensions.