Iran’s “Flying Coffins”

Cross posted from The Huffington Post:

Last year in August I had the distinct “pleasure” of flying to Tehran on board of an Iran Air Boeing 747. In light of the fact that Iran’s air industry has had two plane crashes and two more in-flight emergencies in just the past 3 weeks, it is important for Americans to understand that US sanctions are partly the cause of these disasters–and that they can be prevented.

I arranged my trip last year so I could attend my cousin’s wedding. As a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, I am able to travel to Iran with relative ease, and despite common stereotypes, travel to Iran is perfectly safe–that is, except if you are traveling with Iranian airlines.

Needless to say after the trip I swore never to fly with Iran Air again.

This is not because of stale peanuts or bad airplane food. On the contrary, the “chelo kabab” was the only aspect of the flight that I actually enjoyed. Rather, it was because of the horrifying conditions of the three decade old planes that are standard for Iran’s air travel industry.

My aircraft was one of the first generation Boeing 747 series that the Shah purchased from the United States before the 1979 revolution. Upon sitting, the first thing I noticed was the ashtrays that were still functional in the armrests of the chairs, even though smoking is not allowed on board. Evidently, these aircrafts have not been upgraded for quite some time.

My seat was positioned just behind the wing, and as a beautiful London sunset was bouncing off the engines I noticed the rust around the rivets holding the wings on to the aircraft. “Great,” I thought; “that’s what I wanted to see right before takeoff.”

As the passengers were boarding the plane a family of three took their seats about five rows from where I was sitting. From what I could see, the son of this family was suffering from Down’s syndrome and was in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, this particular Boeing 747 was not wheelchair accessible.

Here the “helpful” flight attendants suggested to the parents that they either take the next flight or “sit at the very front of the aisle and hold on to the wheelchair to keep it from rolling.” The parents were irate, and demanded to speak to the pilot, who also told them to take the other flight and kindly leave his aircraft.

After the family exited, the flight finally took off. Only then did the pilot announce over the intercom that, due to the plane’s instability, we would be unable to fly at the normal cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Instead, we would be flying lower and slower, prolonging my mid-air nightmare by another two hours. One of the passengers sitting near me asked the flight attendant the reason for the additional delay. Her answer was less than reassuring: “The airframe and the wings of the aircraft can no longer sustain themselves in high altitudes so we have to fly lower.”

My return trip wasn’t any better. On the way back to Canada, my flight was delayed for three hours because the aftermarket hydraulic pipe (probably purchased secondhand from the Chinese) of our Iran Air 747 was leaking fluid and had to be repaired.

So can we chalk this up to an inferior “third world” aviation industry that can’t afford basic maintenance? Or is it possible that our efforts to squeeze the Iranian government have had the unintended effect of choking off vital parts and services necessary for keeping passenger planes from falling out of the sky?

As an indirect consequence of the US embargo on trade with Iran, Iranian Airlines have been prohibited from updating their 30 year-old American aircrafts. Additionally, U.S. sanctions even make it difficult for Iranian airliners to get European spare parts for their fleet of Airbus planes, hence the sanctions prevent upkeep of these aircrafts as well. This has forced the Iranian civilian aircraft industry to rely on poor Russian substitutes, many of which are from the Soviet era and for which it is difficult to find spare parts.

Two particular aircraft commonly in use in Iran are the Tupolev Tu-154 also known among Iranians as “flying coffins” and the Ilyushins 76, the Soviet-era workhorses for Russian civil air fleets. The Tu-154 was produced by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s until their production was halted due to their poor flight history. After the Soviet collapse, government funding sharply declined for manufacturers of aircraft and spare parts, hence other countries such as Iran who are using their planes have had a harder time obtaining parts and have had to resort to cannibalizing planes from their own fleet.

The difficulty in obtaining spare parts and service has taken its toll on the safety of Iran’s civilian fleet. The wear and tear from operating the same planes for decades began to show in 2002 when two Tu-154 planes crashed, killing 128. In 2003, a Russian-made Ilyushins 76 that was carrying elite members of the revolutionary guard crashed and left 302 dead. In 2005 a US-made C-130 which was purchased before the 1979 revolution crashed and caused the deaths of 115 passengers. And finally, in the past three weeks alone, two Tu-154s crashed, a Boeing 707 had two engines catch fire mid-flight, and another passenger plane’s landing gear malfunctioned after takeoff. In all, at least 185 passengers have died in the past three weeks alone.

A spokesperson for Boeing indicated to me that the poor safety record of Iranian aircraft is a serious concern for them. “This is really a safety of flight issue,” the spokeswoman said. “We care about the safe operation of our fleet of aircrafts worldwide, regardless of the country.”

Current law prohibits the export to Iran of aircraft parts without a specific license from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), though obtaining a license is a daunting task. According to Boeing’s spokesperson, the application process often takes place with a “presumption of denial.”

There is a popular joke in Iran that says Iranian pilots always say their prayers on the intercom before taking off. For years now, the safety of Iran’s civilian planes and the lives of hundreds of their passengers have rested on a wing and a prayer. How many more people will have to die before lawmakers realize that our broad sanctions on Iran — which have little or no impact on the government’s behavior — are unnecessarily killing innocent people? Can’t we figure out a way to put pressure on the government but spare the men, women, and children of Iran just trying to travel from one place to another? I would like to think that we can, but until politicians in Washington take a closer look at the unintended consequences of our Iran policy, it is the people of Iran who will suffer the most.

Posted By Ali Delforoush

    2 Responses to “Iran’s “Flying Coffins””

  1. Pirouz says:

    I remember the Iran Air of the 1970’s. It was such a proud airline, with the latest and greatest American airplanes. In fact, it had the second best safety record in the world.

    An effort to lift the US sanctions relating to civil aircraft parts was made during the middle of the last Bush presidency. It was spearheaded by the Europeans. However, Cheney and Bolton persuaded Bush to reject it.

  2. Fergal Daly says:

    Interesting article. I wonder about something though. You say “is it possible that our efforts to squeeze the Iranian government have had the unintended effect of choking off vital parts and services necessary for keeping passenger planes from falling out of the sky?”.

    Why do you say that this is unintended? I don’t mean to suggest that the disintegration of civil aviation was a specific goal of the sanctions, just that sanctions applied by the US and its allies have wrought havoc on civil society (often while strengthening the regime they supposedly target – at least in terms of internal politics). The same goes for “humanitarian” wars such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans – civilian infrastructure was targeted, countries were intentionally “bombed back to the stone age”. What was declared at the time to be “collateral damage” was later revealed (through official documents and/or books written by participants) to have been deliberately targeted.

    So, do you have specific reason to believe that the decay of Iranian civil infrastructure is not a goal of the sanctions? Do you have examples of sanctions regimes that have altered in order to fix such problems?

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Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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