The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of exciting moments for Iran. President Hassan Rouhani has ushered in a much needed atmosphere of change domestically and internationally, and the world waits eagerly to see if he is able to achieve at least some of what he has promised. Following the momentous phone conversation with President Barack Obama, Rouhani announced that he has launched a study into the possibility of resuming direct flights between the United States and Iran. In fact one month earlier Iranian news sources were circulating a rumor that Iran Air and Delta Airlines would resume direct flights between the two countries for the first time since 1979. While the rumor was not completely accurate, Rouhani’s announcement confirms that the new administration is seeking to reestablish direct travel as part of the campaign to mend diplomatic relations. More importantly, the announcement draws attention to the topic of sanctions which directly affects the possibility of nonstop flights.
While the prospect of flying direct from Los Angeles, which holds the largest number of Iranians outside of Iran, to Tehran is tantalizing, the underlying message of this release is significant for the success of normalizing U.S. – Iranian relations. Not only is this another signal and weighty olive branch from Rouhani to Obama demonstrating that he is adamant about improving relations, it is also a way for Iran to engage with the U.S. to seriously discuss sanctions. Therefore, it is important to understand the double meaning of Rouhani’s initiative to “study” the possibility of resuming direct flights. This proposition opens the discussion on why this is significant, how sanctions affect air travel and what changes would have to take place to make this a reality. While Iran ultimately hopes that relaxing relations will lead to lifting some of the more recent economic restrictions, diplomatic niceties like suggesting direct flight are entirely bound up in U.S. led sanctions.
First, air travel and the purchasing capabilities of Iran have been severely restricted by U.S. and EU sanctions. A comprehensive summary of what sanctions target can be found here. In sum, the ban on trade between U.S. holdings and Iran in every industry have barred Iranian airlines from purchasing U.S. and most European made planes. Iran has also been prevented from purchasing any used aircraft with major parts, like engines, manufactured in the United States. The world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, are prohibited from selling their jets directly to Iran. Iranian airliners, like Iran Air and Mahan Air, try to meet international benchmarks for operational safety through regular upkeep and alternative paths to purchase newer models. However, the fleet is outdated, and western made parts are hard to come by due to these restrictions. Iranian airlines have been limited to purchasing Ukrainian Anotov’s and Russian Tupelov’s the latter of which were responsible for a string of deadly crashes, and as of 2011 are no longer used in Iran. This has left fewer options for revamping the fleet to meet international standards of aviation safety.
Not only have the sanctions been responsible for this deadly fleet of dated and dangerous aircraft, but sanctions have also restricted Iranian airlines departing from Western Europe and some parts of East Asia to refuel for the journey back to Tehran. As a result, Iranian airliners which already face issues of buying western made spare parts for their risky fleet must refuel in privately owned airports with no affiliated U.S. holdings or extraterritorial sanctions restrictions. Alternatively, Iranian airlines will pit stop in countries which will still allow for refueling, which is increasingly limited as more countries refuse to refuel the aircrafts. In fact, the situation is so dire that Qatar Airlines attempted to provide domestic services in order to meet the Iranian markets’ need. The sanctions targeting Iran and Mahan Air aim to restrict transportation of weapons, supplies and manpower to Syria, however their effectiveness is questionable and instead punishes the population. In the meantime it has made air travel for Iranians and non-Iranian travelers difficult and most importantly dangerous. No doubt Rouhani’s administration would like to revamp the domestic commercial airliners for the sake of the Iranian economy and its people by publicly encouraging direct flights. This would be undertaken knowing well that it would involve discussion of lifting some of the more recent sanctions which are responsible for the precarious conditions for Iranian air travel.
The solution to lifting sanctions is messy and unlikely to happen in the near future. A full halt of the nuclear program in combination with cutting support for Bashar al-Asad might result in easing enforcement, but this is not a guarantee and the process of lifting them is difficult even with full Iranian cooperation. While each executive order explains the reason behind the specific round of sanctions, it is not guaranteed that resolving a particular issue will result in lifting the punishment as a lot of the concerns are bound up in a multitude of interrelated issues which span of 34 years of distrust. Despite the thawing of relations and the historic 15 minute phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, Iran is facing the very serious prospect of a new round of sanctions and more denials from European airports for refueling.
As demonstrated, resuming direct flights between the U.S. and Iran is not as simple as it sounds given that it is tied up in a multilateral and extraterritorial sanctions regime of three decades. Iranian officials are clearly aware of these restrictive measures on their domestic based airlines and are mindful that they have very little say in the resumption of direct flights. Even if Rouhani uses his power as President and receives the approval of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and goes so far as to ease restrictions on U.S. citizens entering the country, Iran does not have the capability to resume nonstop flights. In addition, the U.S. knows that the resumption of direct flights is in their control. One option would be for Iran to allow American based airlines to provide nonstop service to Tehran. However, the prohibition of trade goes both ways and American airlines would not be able to refuel in Tehran. Thus, resuming direct travel between the two countries is not the solution to U.S. – Iranian relations, but rather a positive outcome of normalized and sanction-less relations. What might seem like jumping the gun to resume flights given the circumstances should be assessed more carefully as a signal to the United States of the good will that is going to have some domestic political costs for Rouhani and his supporters.
Rouhani is balancing between reconstructing a relationship with the U.S. and dealing with blowback from conservatives in Iran. This should be no surprise. Domestic politics, especially in a politically divided society, influences the degree to which leaders can pursue certain policies. This is not to say that domestic politics dictate foreign policy objectives entirely, but years of anti-Americanism and anti-Iranian rhetoric cannot be overhauled without some cost and time. Small gestures, such as the one Rouhani made should be taken as an invitation to opening dialogue on lifting sanctions without seeming too desperate.
Both sides know that L.A. to Tehran via American Airlines or Iran Air is going to take more than just a 15 minute phone call. Rather it will be the result of a slow process of removing 34 years of a sanctions minded and distrustful relationship. Unfortunately, what might be one of the most conducive ways to build trust between two nations through travel and exchange of culture and knowledge may be further along in this arduous, but much needed, path of normalizing relations.