9 hours at an Iranian airport: IDF soldier endures unnerving flight diversion

Iranians thought to have been unaware Israeli was on plane traveling from Uzbekistan to UAE; Mossad contacted her while on the ground, instructed her to conceal her identity

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Shiraz International Airport, October 20, 2021. (Tahere Rokhbakhsh/Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikipedia)
Shiraz International Airport, October 20, 2021. (Tahere Rokhbakhsh/Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikipedia)

An Israeli soldier aboard a plane from Uzbekistan landed in Iran last week and spent nine hours on the ground before safely departing, the military cleared for publication Thursday.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the 19-year-old Russian-speaking soldier, who serves in a non-sensitive position in the IDF’s Northern Command, had been on vacation visiting family in Uzbekistan.

The civilian flight from the Uzbek capital Tashkent to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday was diverted due to a medical condition of one of the passengers. It landed at Shiraz International Airport.

The plane spent around nine hours in Iran before taking off again without incident, the IDF said.

Hebrew-language media reports said passengers disembarked and were sent to wait in the terminal. While on the ground the soldier called her parents, who then notified her commanders. The details were eventually passed on to senior defense officials, who notified Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as the Israeli cabinet was holding a meeting on signing a maritime border agreement with Lebanon.

The Mossad spy agency then sprung into action and made contact with the soldier, instructing her to conceal her Israeli identity and not speak Hebrew, the reports said.

While in Iran the soldier presented airport workers with her foreign passport, which had reportedly been issued in Israel, without arousing any suspicion. According to some reports, the soldier was traveling on a Russian passport.

After around nine hours of waiting at the airport with the other passengers, the soldier boarded the flight again and flew to the UAE, before catching another flight back to Israel.

Iran is thought to have been unaware an Israeli soldier had landed in its territory. Channel 12 news reported that Iran may have realized an Israeli was on the plane after it took off again. It did not cite a source.

Israel is a sworn enemy of Iran, and the two countries have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions ratcheted up earlier this year following a string of high-profile incidents Tehran has blamed on Israel. Jerusalem, as is common practice, neither confirms nor denies its involvement in most of the incidents.

There have been several cases in the past where Israelis traveling over Asia have been diverted to Iran due to emergencies — though all were civilians. In all cases, the passengers departed without incident. International aviation agreements forbid a country from arresting or detaining a person in such a situation.

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