The Iran Project

An opportunity in Iran’s latest tragedy

Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Iran has sought international assistance in the investigation of the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which killed all 176 people onboard on Wednesday. But the ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran threaten to prevent the involvement of American experts in the investigation of what brought down the Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board faces two quandaries. It must determine whether the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran prohibit engagement with Iranian authorities in the investigation, and whether it is safe to send investigators to the crash site at a time when the two countries are in a heightened state of confrontation.

NTSB experts are widely recognized as among the best crash investigators in the world and they regularly participate in investigations at the behest of foreign governments, under a process outlined in Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

Boeing Co. has said it is ready “to assist in any way needed,” but the airplane maker, too, must reckon with sanctions restrictions.

American sanctions on Iran require NTSB investigators to procure a license from the Treasury Department in order to work with Iranian counterparts—such clearances can take as long as a year to be issued.

The tragedy presents the Trump administration an opportunity to demonstrate its often-stated goodwill toward the Iranian people by immediately issuing the licenses. In return, the U.S. should seek public assurances about the safety of American experts who would travel to Iran, and for these experts to be provided access to the plane’s black boxes—which Iranian officials are reportedly reluctant to provide.

Part of this reluctance stems from the fact that Iranian civil aviation officials believe their own efforts to improve the safety of Iran’s airlines have been significantly hampered by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policy. Boeing’s contracts to sell 100 aircraft to Iranian airlines were cancelled when the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018—Iranian airlines fly some the oldest aircraft still in service anywhere in the world. The reimposition of secondary sanctions also blocked Iran’s ability to purchase spare parts from U.S. suppliers for its existing fleet, and even prohibited the sale of training manuals and technical documentation.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body, has long gathered evidencedemonstrating that U.S. sanctions hamper the safety of the Iranian aviation industry. A 2010 ICAO Universal Safety Audit found that “Iranian carriers are unable at present to fulfill most requisite ICAO aviation safety and maintenance standards and recommended practices (SARPs)… because they were denied access to updated aircraft and aircraft spare parts and post-sale services around the world.” The rate of passenger fatalities in Iran is 5.5 times higher than in the rest of the world.

As a foreign carrier, the safety of the Ukraine International Airlines flight is unlikely to have been impacted by these sanctions issues. But the death of over 100 Iranian nationals in the crash has compounded the grief for a country where planes all-too-regularly experience catastrophic accidents.

When issuing licenses to enable U.S. participation in the investigation, the Trump administration should also respond to the wider concerns around aviation safety in Iran by issuing licenses for planemakers such as Airbus SE, Boeing and ATR to resume sales of safety-related materials, including flight manuals used in pilot training and schematics used in aircraft maintenance. These limited licenses would in no way undermine the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, but could generate some trust between American and Iranian authorities seeking to de-escalate tensions.

This would not be the first time that the U.S. has sought space for understanding and cooperation with Iran under tragic circumstances. In the aftermath of the devastating 2003 Bam Earthquake, American search and rescue teams traveled to Iran to provide disaster aid and medical assistance to survivors—without in any way compromising the U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear program.

This is another moment for that kind of cooperation.

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