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Iranian airplane crashes expose weaknesses in 'self-sufficiency'

Blaming Western sanctions for Iran's airplane crashes is no longer enough, say critics who cite to the dismal safety record of Iran-built planes.

The crash of a passenger plane constructed jointly by Iran and Ukraine last week near Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran shows that not only do the sanctions against the Iranian aviation industry continue to threaten the lives of the Iranian passengers, but also that Iran's attempts to gain independence in aviation have been equally life-threatening.

On Aug. 10 at 9:20 a.m., a Sepahan Airlines plane, headed from Tehran to Tabas, lost one of its engines on the runway of the Mehrabad airport and crashed on the northern side of the Tehran-Karaj highway. According to a report published by the director of Iran's Airports Co., aside from the crew, there were 34 adults, three toddlers and three children under the age of 12 aboard this aircraft. Only eight passengers survived the crash.

The Iran-based airline's plane was an IrAn-140 aircraft. The Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company, also known as "HESA," which belongs to the Ministry of Defense, had assembled the Ukrainian-made aircraft.

There is a short description for this type of turboprop aircraft on the company's website that reads: "A regional passenger plane, a small aircraft suitable for carrying 35 to 100 passengers between two locations, designed to have the utmost sufficiency."

Six years ago, in the last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term as president, his minister of roads and transportation, Hamid Behbahani, defended the administration's policies regarding "self-sufficiency" and "independence from trade with Western powers," and told the Principlist website KhabarOnline: "I have flown with this plane a few times already and I am willing to sign a written statement that IrAn-140 is much better than Fokker. This plane is both new and self efficient. If we gradually continue building these types of aircraft, in the future, we can compete with the foreigners."

Only two months after Behbahani made these comments, in February 2009, an IrAn-140 passenger plane crashed near Shahin Shahr Airport in Esfahan province, killing all five passengers onboard. The five passengers included one supervisor pilot and four other pilots who were being trained to work with these types of two-engine airplanes to join the company.

According to the moderate website Asriran, during Ahmadinejad’s second term as president, HESA, which assembles these aircraft, realized that no airline was willing to buy these aircraft it manufactured. Therefore, HESA decided to found a new airline itself named "Sepahan Airlines" and started using its own manufactured planes for that airline.

At the time of this accident, Hamed Saidi, one of the members of the board of directors of the Iranian Aviation and Space Industry, wrote in an editorial published in the Reformist newspaper Shargh: "The recently crashed airplane was called IrAn-140 and was manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company, HESA. After the incident, however, its name changed to 'Antonov' and became a Ukrainian-manufactured aircraft. When awards are given, everything is national and the result of self-sufficiency, but as soon as something goes wrong, it is 'Antonov' that has crashed."

The Antonov-140 aircraft, and its Iranian-made version IrAn-140, have had five major accidents, three of which have occurred in Iran. The list of incidents, excluding the crash that happened last week and the one in 2009, is as follows: On Dec. 23, 2002, 44 Russian and Ukrainian officials were killed when Antonov crashed in Esfahan. In 2005, the airplane deviated from the runway in Arak but there were no casualties. On Dec. 9, 2005, 18 people were killed when the airplane belonging to Azerbaijan Airlines crashed. In 2008, an Antonov plane developed technical problems while landing, but there were no casualties.

It is notable that after the recent incident, the public as well as the media are focusing on how the previous administration has acted "irresponsibly" in importing this type of aircraft to Iran, and how President Hassan Rouhani's administration is equally at fault for not grounding these planes. This is an important development, since prior to this, people blamed the West's sanctions against the Iranian aviation industry for these types of incidents. Now, however, it appears that the situation has become more complex, and the critics no longer believe that the sanctions are the sole reason behind the demise of the passengers of the IrAn-140 aircraft. For example, the Reformist newspaper Arman has published a report regarding the latest plane crash and has quoted Mohammad Khatami's minister of roads and transportation, Ahmad Khorram, saying, "The airlines have been notified that they are not to use these aircraft. So why was it that this plane flew? The question is, how come those in charge allowed this airplane to not only fly, but be used as a passenger plane?"

Isa Saharkhiz, a senior journalist in Tehran who is one of the founding members of the Association of Iranian Journalists told Al-Monitor, "The funny thing is that Ahmadinejad's administration tried to pretend that this project is a great achievement and a sign of the self-sufficiency of the Iranian aviation industry."

These types of pressures coming from both the media and social networks have resulted in President Hassan Rouhani ordering the remaining IrAn-140 aircraft to be grounded. However, Deputy Transport Minister Ahmad Majidi has told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) that there were no more IrAn-140 aircraft left to be used. According to Majidi, prior to the latest accident, there were five Antonov-140 aircraft in Iran and four of them were incapable of flying due to technical problems and the absence of necessary parts.

According to the International Flight Safety Foundation, Iranian airlines have had a total of 56 fatal incidents and 1870 fatalities starting with the first ever incident that took place on Sept. 6, 1929, leaving three people dead, and the most recent incident on Aug. 10, 2014. Until the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the number of fatalities was only 189 and since then, during the past 36 years, 1,672 people have lost their lives in airplane-related disasters.

A flight engineer working at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran told Al-Monitor, “There are two issues that can help us be less surprised by these numbers. The first one is that in Iran, with the expansion of urban life and the growth in areas such as industry, education and economy, and especially after the Iran-Iraq war ended, there has been an increase in the number of flights. Based on the numbers that I have, each year, there are 100,000 flights from Mehrabad International Airport alone. More than 10 million passengers have traveled from this airport.”

He added, “Of course, an increase in the number of flights should not mean an increase in the number of fatal accidents. This is not the case. However, we should remember that Iran used to buy valuable passenger planes from the United States and Europe before the revolution, but this process came to an end after the Islamic Revolution, and eventually when sanctions were imposed on our aviation industry.”

While emphasizing that Iranian officials have acted irresponsibly, Saharkhiz also agreed that these sanctions were an important reason behind these accidents. He believes that the United States must end these sanctions. “Removing these sanctions and allowing Iran to buy passenger airplanes and spare parts is a humanitarian act, and US President Barack Obama could have done it without any preconditions,” he said.

Saharkhiz believes that such an act could be an important turning point and would help in building trust between Tehran and Washington, adding, “This might be wishful thinking, but we should remember that the impossible is not impossible.”

More from A correspondent in Tehran

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