U.S. sanctions have turned Iranian airplanes into ‘flying coffins’

The deaths of 65 passengers and crew aboard an Iranian commercial flight that crashed on Sunday may be the latest example.

Relatives of Iranian passengers, onboard the Aseman Airlines flight EP3704, react as they gather in front of a mosque near Tehran's Mehrabad airport on February 18, 2018. (credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Iranian passengers, onboard the Aseman Airlines flight EP3704, react as they gather in front of a mosque near Tehran's Mehrabad airport on February 18, 2018. (credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The deaths of 65 passengers and crew aboard an Iranian commercial flight that crashed on Sunday are the latest in Iran’s longstanding ordeal over the safety of its airplanes — referred to by some Iranians as “flying coffins.”

The Aseman Airlines plane was headed to the southwestern city of Yasuj from Tehran, when it disappeared about an hour into the flight, and crashed in a mountainous area in Semirom. Authorities located the remains of the wreckage on Tuesday.

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While the cause of the crash has not yet been determined — Aseman Airlines has blamed bad weather, and local Iranian media has speculated that the 24-year-old twin-engine turboprop ATR plane experienced technical failure — the accident highlights a disturbing trend in Iran. The country has experienced about 200 accidents involving planes and suffered almost 2,000 lives lost in more than two decades, according to the BBC.

Iranians say the frequent crashes are partly due to restrictions stemming from Western sanctions, which have prohibited American businesses and some European entities from conducting trade with Iran, including the sale of new airplanes or parts — forcing the country to rely on an aging airline fleet, on spare parts purchased on the black market, and on second-rate Russian planes.

“Much of the Iranian airplanes predate the 1979 revolution, making it one of the oldest fleets in the world. The fact that the Iranian government managed to maintain these airplanes—to an extent—is a feat of its own,” Holly Dagres, Iranian-American Middle East analyst and curator of the Iranist newsletter, told ThinkProgress in an email.

“The average passenger airliner has a life-expectancy of 30 years, which means most of these airplanes should’ve been retired well over a decade ago,” Dagres added.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama lifted the ban on civilian aircraft exports to Iran. While U.S. businesses are still prohibited from trading with Iran, certain exceptions are made for commercial planes and humanitarian goods. Since the 2015 U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allows for the sale of commercial airplanes and parts to Iran, the country has reached several deals with Boeing and Airbus for the purchase of hundreds of commercial passenger airplanes worth several billions of dollars. The deals are subject to U.S. Treasury Department approval.

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President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly threatened to kill or renegotiate the JCPOA, reluctantly waived sanctions under the terms of the JCPOA in January, but administration officials said it was the “last time” the president would grant such a waiver.

That could put deals like those reached with Boeing and Airbus at risk. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration has expressed concern about the possibility that Iran could use the airplanes to send weapons to Syria; in response, as the Jerusalem Post reported, the U.S. government may halt the Boeing deal on the grounds that Iran is not in compliance with the nuclear deal.

“Essentially, every time an Iranian citizen boards one of their airplanes, they’re gambling with their lives.”

Dagres said such fears are unsophisticated. “If Tehran wants to give weapons to Syria, it’s going to do it by land via Iraq,” she said. “Not giving the Iranian government new airplanes isn’t going to stop them from backing the Bashar Al-Assad government. They’ve supplied weapons and soldiers before talks of new airplanes and they will after.”

Last year, the House passed a bill that would allow the U.S. government to cancel the licensed sale of airplanes to Iran if the licenses benefit individuals who provided services to entities on the U.S. sanctions lists. At a markup of the bill in November, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) said, “It’s about being careful of a country that wants to destroy America.”

But the risk seems far greater for millions of Iranians in Iran.

“Essentially, every time an Iranian citizen boards one of their airplanes, they’re gambling with their lives,” said Dagres.