In the summer of 2009, in the aftermath of the elections, there was obviously a lot going on in Iran. But one of the things that I remember made everyone hold their breaths in those months is probably not what you’re assuming right now.
On July 15 2009, an Iranian passenger jet – a Russian-made Tupolev – crashed, killing all 168 people on board. Nine days later, another plane – a Russian-made Ilyushin – crashed in a local airport, killing over 20 people. The close succession of crashes frightened us all, and made us realize how vulnerable Iranians really are to sanctions.
At the time, I, along with many other Iranian Americans, was in Iran, and to get between cities and provinces I had to fly. I remember praying that nothing would go wrong as I entered each plane, before takeoff, and before landing. And I remember holding on for dear life when I heard the plane rattle the slightest bit. And I’m not scared of flying.
I remember asking my family why the crashes had occurred. Were Iranian planes just not up to par to American ones? “Sanctions,” they responded, surprised at my ignorance.
Since 1995, companies worldwide have been banned from selling US aircraft or spare aircraft parts to the Islamic Republic. This includes civilian airplanes. Even if you do believe sanctions will weaken the Iranian regime, you must concede that, at least in this one regard, they do kill innocent people.
There have been more than 200 plane crashes in the country since 1990, giving Iran the worst aviation safety record among all nations. Among these incidents, 70 or so alone have led to over 2,000 deaths, and six have been recorded among the world’s “100 worst civil aviation disasters” since the 1980s. They have involved planes made by the United States, Russia and Western Europe.
As Hooshang Amirahmadi wrote last summer:
Barred from the American and European markets, Iran has also turned to black markets where counterfeit parts are supplied. Besides, the Iranian government has often been forced to use parts from a plane considered “unusable” to patch up another “repairable” plane. The repaired plane is then allowed to fly while the crew members “pray to God for a safe landing.”
Because of Iran’s rugged geography, size, and underdeveloped land transport system (there is no internal water transport), Iranians have become increasingly air-transport dependent. No wonder that even if they are aware of the real risk, they still fly these unsafe planes. Having no other option, Iranians are paying for the U.S.-Iran feud with their blood.
Recently, it was announced that there will once again be direct flights between Cairo and Tehran, the first time since the 1979 revolution. Egypt and Iran agreed last week to start 28 direct flights a week between Tehran and Cairo, although it was not announced when these flights would begin.
And yet again, politics invaded civilian life.
“We continue to urge all countries, including Egypt, not to pursue any new business deals until Iran complies with its international obligations,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said when asked about the agreement.
When reporters asked if the White House is “going after Iranian civilian airlines,” the spokesman said such agreements would have “economic implications” and “implications in terms of business.”
What about implications for the wellbeing of innocent people?
Currently, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) may authorize the exportation to Iran of civilian aircraft parts and services for preserving flight safety. In September 2006, for example, the Bush Administration, in the interest of safe operations of civilian aircraft, permitted a sale by General Electric of Airbus engine spare parts to be installed on several Iran Air passenger aircraft. These authorizations, however, are rare and are often prevented.
Nonetheless, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) announced legislation recently to close even this small loophole allowing for an act of kindness, or a humanitarian gesture if you will. Why? According to Sherman, U.S. sanctions need to “hurt the Iranian people.”
In addition, the Obama Administration is now working to divert and ground Iran Air flights by pressing oil companies in Europe not to refuel civilian flights.
I’m Iranian American. I understand the antagonistic relations between the governments of the US and Iran. I understand the tension, the mistrust, even the immature name-calling on both sides. What I do not understand, and what I don’t think I ever will, is why politics must affect civilians when such an intrusion can be easily avoided.
This mistrust between Tehran and Washington should not affect whether or not I safely land in Tehran next summer. It should not kill innocent Iranians, on their way to a wedding or to visit their sick aunt, or simply going on a much-needed vacation. And it should not restrict Iranians’ “main lifeline to the outside world.” For then, you are simply doing the work of the dictator for him.