WASHINGTON — On a Sunday morning in February, a twin-engine turboprop passenger plane crashed in Iran’s Zagros Mountains. All 65 passengers and crew members were killed. The plane, an ATR 72, had been flying for nearly 25 years, about 10 years longer than the average U.S. aircraft is kept in service.
Ancient, dangerous airliners are the norm, not the exception, in Iran. For decades, U.S. and international sanctions have prevented Iran from buying new planes from companies like Boeing and Airbus, which dominate the global aviation market. Some of the sanctions have even complicated Iran’s ability to purchase spare parts and service its aging planes. The country now operates one of the world’s oldest fleets of civilian airliners, and it shows: There have been more than two dozen civilian airplane crashes in Iran since 2000.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal was supposed to offer Iran a chance to finally replace planes that Iranians sometimes call “flying coffins.”
Now that effort is stalled — thanks to President Donald Trump. When Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last week, the Treasury Department said it would revoke licenses that allowed aviation companies to sell planes and parts to Iran.
As part of the nuclear agreement, the U.S. had agreed to issue licenses on a case-by-case basis to allow American companies (and foreign companies that use a certain amount of U.S.-origin components) to sell planes and parts to Iran. Shortly after the deal went into effect, Iran Air signed deals to purchase 100 planes from Airbus, 80 planes from Boeing and 20 from ATR, a Franco-Italian manufacturer. Iran’s Aseman Airlines reached a separate agreement to buy 30 planes from Boeing. In total, the contracts were worth about $40 billion.
But Airbus has delivered only three planes to Iran since the nuclear deal went into effect. The 2017 deliveries marked the first time Iran had acquired new aircraft in nearly 20 years. ATR has shipped eight short-haul regional airliners to Iran and plans to squeeze in more deliveries before the sanctions kick in in August, the Financial Tribune reported. Boeing has not yet delivered any planes to Iran.
Both Boeing and Airbus have backlogs of orders. Boeing, mindful of the Trump administration’s threats to pull out of the nuclear deal, had not started building the planes it agreed to sell to Iran.
It was viewed as a win-win that would help the U.S. business community — and the broader perception was that it would contribute to the quality of life and better safety standards for Iranians. Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran adviser
“We will consult with the U.S. Government on next steps. As we have throughout this process, we’ll continue to follow the U.S. Government’s lead,” Boeing Vice President Gordon Johndroe said in a statement after Trump’s announcement. An Airbus spokesman said the company is analyzing the situation and plans to consult with its customers. ATR did not respond to a request for comment.
Before Trump came into office, the U.S. government had long viewed easing restrictions on aircraft sales as an area “ripe for cooperation” between Washington and Tehran, said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran adviser.
“It was viewed as a win-win that would help the U.S. business community — and the broader perception was that it would contribute to the quality of life and better safety standards for Iranians,” she continued.
When planes crash in Iran, the country’s state-owned media reliably blames U.S. sanctions for putting Iranian civilians at risk. But even amid climbing fatality figures, hard-liners in the U.S. urged Western airplane manufacturers to stay out of Iran, arguing that the Iranian military would divert civilian planes to send troops and weapons to Syria. After the nuclear agreement went into effect, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) pushed legislation through the House to block the Treasury Department from granting companies like Boeing licenses to sell aircraft to Iran.
Sanctions experts say concerns about Iran diverting civilian aircraft are overblown. The Iranian government is eager to upgrade civilian airplanes — and Western companies that sell to Iran do extensive due diligence to make sure they won’t be implicated in Iran’s military endeavors.
The people who warn that selling civilian aircraft to Iran will boost the country’s military are using “the same sort of scare tactics they drummed up to kill the” nuclear deal, said Erich Ferrari, a lawyer who specializes in sanctions law. “If they feel OK and they can sleep at night knowing that people are falling out of the sky from all over the world … I guess that’s the thing they have to live with.”