Are US sanctions against Iranian airlines punishing the state or simply endangering innocent passengers?
The stakes were dramatically raised in the Middle East at the weekend by news that the US is deploying defensive missile systems throughout the Gulf. Writing in the Guardian, Robert Tait warned that the deployment "may strengthen radical elements in the revolutionary guards". It is for this reason that President Obama should realise the importance of balancing bigger sticks with bigger carrots, including the reduction of sanctions against Iranian civilian airlines.
Last month more than 40 passengers were injured when an Iranian Tupolev 154 crash-landed at Mashhad. Another Russian-built Tupolev crashed last year en route to Armenia, killing all 168 on board. Iran has a poor aviation safety record, with numerous crashes since US aviation sanctions prevented it from buying more reliable western planes in 1995. The question that arises from these incidents is whether banning civilian airline parts represents "smart" sanctions that are intended to maximise the pressure on the ruling regime while limiting their unintended side effects, or whether it puts the lives of innocent travellers of all nationalities at risk.
At the end of 2009 the head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation, Reza Nakhjavani, criticised the American ban as inhumane and tantamount to denying the country medical supplies. Yet according to the Carnegie Institute the initial logic of the Iran Sanctions Act was to "curb the strategic threat of Iran" with particular focus on the developing energy sector. Although development of the energy sector has been somewhat stunted, Iran's reliance on Russia and China to fill in for the US has the unintended consequence of making it a lot harder to find security council consensus on dealing with the country.
The 1995 sanctions against Iran prohibited military technology or militarily useful technology to the country. The difficulty with the latter is that it opens up the confusion concerning how sanctions should dealing with potential "dual use" materials. Parts that could be used to repair Iran's ailing civilian fleet could be cannibalised and perhaps used by the Iranian military. In their paper on the 1990s, a period they described as the "sanctions decade", David Cortright and George Lopez stressed the importance of minimising the humanitarian impacts. The fundamental purpose of sanctions, they said, "should be bringing states back into the international arena through constructive engagement".
A report prepared for the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 2005 warned that American sanctions against Iran were placing civilian lives in danger by denying Iranian aviation necessary spare parts. The report said the US government and major US companies were ignoring international treaties and taking actions that put passengers on Iranian commercial airlines at risk, including thousands of people from other countries travelling to and from Iran. Last year, the former director of the atomic agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, described the prospect of further sanctions on Iran as ineffective.
Iranian airlines do not suffer alone. Last year Syria's attempt to escape western isolation was dealt a blow when the US blocked French attempts to upgrade Syria's national carrier with Airbuses. Syria stopped flying Boeings to and from London in 2006 due to US sanctions on spare parts. I remember flying one of the last Syrian Air 747s from London to Damascus: seats were dislodged from the floor and the descent started hours from Damascus to minimise stress on the plane's ageing parts.
As the debate rumbles on over escalating sanctions against Iran it is worth remembering their terrible track record across the region. Sanctions against Iraq killed thousands of innocents (Columbia's Richard Garfield estimated the most likely number of excess deaths among children under five years of age from 1990 to March 1998 to be 227,000) and allowed Saddam Hussein to control what little was allowed into the country. Although they were certainly effective in reducing the capabilities of the Iraqi military, they weakened the state to such an extent that the 2003 regime change resulted in its almost total disintegration.
Considering the clear dangers of the failed state/ungoverned space hypothesis that justifies the Afghan mission, it seems hard to understand advocating the creation of a similar arena in Iran. The Foreign Office speaks of a desire to "foster links between the Iranian people and the British people - there is much potential for educational, scientific, sporting and cultural exchanges". Obama has tried desperately, and so far unsuccessfully, to reach out to Iran and the Iranian people, emphasising the "common humanity that binds us together" in a New Year message.
Replacing rhetoric with the very real gesture of selling a number of safe civilian airliners would show that Obama is serious when he says he wants to improve ties to the Iranian people. As Saeed Kamali Dehghan recently wrote in the Guardian: "I'm not the Iranian government, I'm an ordinary Iranian and the sanctions are just crippling me."
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