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Alex Macheras

Iran's flight safety crashing amid Trump silence on sanctions renewal

Locals gather as wreckage from a 2014 crash is relocated [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 April, 2018

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Analysis: Since the Trump administration has taken office, there has been a deafening silence towards Iran and export licenses, continuing a fatal trend in aviation safety, writes Alex Macheras.
Towards the end of the Obama administration, the US lifted its long-standing sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran - a scenario long awaited by Iranians commercially isolated in a region where all geopolitical neighbours were trading with the world - and economically prospering.

However, since the Trump administration took office, a deafening silence concerning whether export licences would be renewed has almost become a sanction of its own against Iran, and in the aviation industry - the reality is desperate.

For years, western sanctions limited Iran's ability to purchase passenger planes. The United States imposed sanctions following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, before expanding them in 1995 to include firms dealing with the Iranian government. As a result, Iranian airlines have only been able to fly aircraft they had purchased before the restrictions.

It has left commercial airlines in Iran with the oldest passenger planes in world. All of Iran's 14 registered commercial airlines are operating an ageing, fragile fleet of passenger jets, and while older aircraft in the West remain safe to fly - given constant maintenance, cockpit software updates, structural upgrades etc - in Iran, just being able to obtain spare parts was forbidden due to the amount of aircraft components either wholly manufactured in the US or at least 10 percent manufacture-affiliated with the US.

As a result, airlines have been unable to perform the necessary maintenance required to keep older jets repaired. But instead of the broken jets being retired or stored, given their unfit nature - they continue flying.

An Iranian aircraft engineer based in Tehran told me: "When you're applying speed-tape [an industry form of aluminium pressure-sensitive tape, often referred to as 'a stronger version of duct tape' used to do temporary, and minor repairs on aircraft] for everything, because it's all we have… of course we're knowingly flying in a far more dangerous way than the rest of the world.

"Here, with such limited resources, it's true to say that we tend to hope for the best."

Nearly 2,000 Iranians have died in plane crashes since 1979. Just two months ago, in February 2018, another Iranian airliner went down over a mountain range in the province of Isfahan.

When you're applying speed-tape for everything, because it's all we have… of course we're knowingly flying in a far more dangerous way than the rest of the world

In the immediate aftermath of the news of the crash, Iranians took to social media to call on the US to stop blocking commercial airline aircraft deals - if only to stem the growing list of Iranian nationals who are losing their lives in domestic flight accidents each year.

Current export licences - issued when the Obama administration lifted sanctions in 2016 - expire at the end of 2020, but in order for aircraft manufactured to be able to proceed with planned deliveries, the licences need to be renewed.

The US Treasury Department's delay in extending these licences has changed the prospects for aircraft manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, ATR and Bombardier - who in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear deal were celebrating the ability to ink huge contracts with an inevitably emerging Iranian market.

We do not know when we can tell our Iranian airline customer 'Please engage with us. We're going to deliver brand-new aircraft'

Bosses at ATR, a turboprop aircraft manufacturer based in France say they're hopeful that worsening relations between the US administration and Iran will not hinder aviation deals and business relationship with Tehran, but admit that "at the moment, it is a closed office".

"We do not know when we can tell our Iranian airline customer 'Please engage with us. We're going to deliver brand-new aircraft'."

Under the current planned delivery schedule, and in the event that the US Treasury were to pull the plug on the export licence renewal, the jets covered by the existing licences valid until 2020 would include 37 or 38 Airbus jets, 15 from Boeing and all 20 ATRs to the flag-carrier Iran Air.

However, both Trump's hawkish rhetoric towards Iran, and an even more sceptical new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have added to doubts concerning the likelihood that Iran will be able to go ahead with their signed deals any time soon.

Since the sanctions were lifted, Iran has so far managed to import nine aircraft, including three larger jets from Airbus - which reshuffled their production delivery schedule in order to send new passenger jets to Tehran as quickly as possible, recognising the need for new, safe aircraft in the region.

As the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance, the European Union made a joint request to US President Donald Trump last week to uphold the terms of the international agreement. Furthermore, French President Macron will make a state visit to Washington on April 24, and German Chancellor Merkel will visit the US on April 27 - both tipped to make a final plea to the US president to avoid re-imposing sanctions.

And while economically the aircraft deals are of a great importance, the human side of the harsh reality of air travel remains centre stage for the Iranians who have been affected by tragedy after tragedy, and continue to make their pleas for safer skies.

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 2017.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexInAir

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