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Iran’s push to defy sanctions with own planes blocked

A firefighting crane lifts the tail section of a passenger plane which crashed near the capital Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

DUBAI: Iran’s efforts to escape the impact of Western sanctions by founding its own aerospace industry are in tatters after four crashes in 12 years involving the aircraft around which the plan is based led the model to be grounded.

Iran-140 turboprops like the one that went down shortly after takeoff over the weekend, killing 39 of 50 people on board, won’t fly again until regulators determine whether the spate of accidents can be traced to faults intrinsic to the plane, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said.

The domestically assembled model is based on Ukraine’s Antonov An-140, a type which entered service only in late 2000. While 31 of the planes had been built through the end of 2013 – including Iranian versions that began production in 2005 – only 16 are still operating, according to Paul Hayes, head of safety analytics at London-based database Ascend International.

“This has not been a successful program, if you judge by the numbers,” Hayes said. While the rate of attrition points to one of the worst records of any modern plane, he added that Iran has a “relatively sophisticated” aviation industry, with not enough known about individual incidents to draw firm conclusions about the standard of its engineering and aviation practices.

At least some of the planes not flying have been grounded due to a lack of parts stemming from economic sanctions. That same issue prompted Iran to embark on building an indigenous manufacturing capability in the first place, Ahmad Majidi, the country’s deputy transport minister, was cited Monday as telling the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Alireza Jahangirian, the head of Iran’s civil aviation authority, told state television that one of the plane’s two engines may have failed, though the aircraft should still have been able to fly. The reasons for the crash should become clear once the two flight recorders have been analyzed, he said.

Four Iran-140s were meanwhile already grounded, according to Majidi, the deputy transport minister, who blamed a lack of parts, according to the student news agency.

Whatever issues there may be clearly run through the entire program, affecting both Ukraine- and Iran-built planes, given that both have had crashes, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, an international aviation consulting company.

There are three possibilities, he says: a design flaw, manufacturing flaws – which he deems more likely – or errors with the planes’ upkeep, which he reckons also very possible.

“They might not have the latest and best maintenance procedures,” Aboulafia said, adding that in terms of engineering the Iranian planes require the relatively simple combination of sub-assemblies built in the Ukraine.

With efforts to make even a simple turboprop falling short, Iran’s aviation industry has even more to gain from an end to sanctions that have been blocking deals with Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV.

Limits on buying parts have also compelled companies to buy used planes for component salvage, hampering safety.

Boeing and General Electric Co. were among companies granted component export licenses during a six-month window in the first part of the year ahead of a more formal easing of controls. The U.S.-led sanctions tied to talks on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program may be lifted as early as November.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 13, 2014, on page 5.

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Summary

Iran's efforts to escape the impact of Western sanctions by founding its own aerospace industry are in tatters after four crashes in 12 years involving the aircraft around which the plan is based led the model to be grounded.

Iran-140 turboprops like the one that went down shortly after takeoff over the weekend, killing 39 of 50 people on board, won't fly again until regulators determine whether the spate of accidents can be traced to faults intrinsic to the plane, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said.

That same issue prompted Iran to embark on building an indigenous manufacturing capability in the first place, Ahmad Majidi, the country's deputy transport minister, was cited Monday as telling the Iranian Students' News Agency.

Alireza Jahangirian, the head of Iran's civil aviation authority, told state television that one of the plane's two engines may have failed, though the aircraft should still have been able to fly.


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