Iranian pilot campaigns to lift airliner sanctions

Iranian 'hero pilot' launches campaign to lift Western sanctions on spare parts for airliners

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- An Iranian pilot who guided an Iran Air Boeing passenger plane to a safe emergency landing last year despite broken front landing gear has launched a campaign to lift Western sanctions that restrict the import of civilian plane spare parts.

Captain Hooshang Shahbazi, hailed by Iran's media as a hero, told The Associated Press in an interview that sanctions are "inhuman" and claimed they violate international conventions to which the United States is a signatory.

U.S. sanctions prevent Tehran from updating its 35-year-old American aircraft, and European parts or planes are extremely difficult to obtain. Iran now relies on Russian aircraft, mostly older planes built before the fall of the Soviet Union for which parts are harder to replace.

Although some technical openings exist for Iranian carriers to obtain U.S. spare parts, such as conducting the repairs outside Iran, the difficult licensing and oversight procedures make them extremely difficult to act upon. Meanwhile, Iran's state carrier Iran Air was placed under specific U.S. sanctions last year over alleged links to the military.

Iran has a history of frequent air accidents blamed on its aging aircraft and poor maintenance. Iran Air's fleet mainly includes Boeing and Airbus aircraft, many of them bought before the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution that led to a breakdown in ties between Tehran and Washington.

"To achieve human goals, one should not threaten lives of human beings," Shahbazi said. "There are things that should never be threatened such as human lives, access to medicine and access to food. Even during World Wars I and II, there were no sanctions on these," he added.

The pilot's fame comes from a courageous manoeuver he executed in Tehran last October, landing safely using only the rear wheels of a Boeing 727 flying from Moscow. Setting the aircraft's nose down gently on the tarmac at the last second, the emergency move allowed 94 passengers and 19 crew members to escape unhurt.

"Lift aviation sanctions. Save passengers' lives. The Iranian people are innocent" reads a slogan on his website (capt-shahbazi.com). So far, 123,970 people have joined a petition he has launched.

"President Obama appeared on TV during Iran's new year holiday with a message of equality, brotherhood and friendship to my countrymen," Shahbazi said. "Then, the next day, he sat at his desk and signed a decree to extend the sanctions on Iran's civilian aviation industry, putting the lives of Iranians in danger. My question is: Is that not paradoxical?"

Iran has acknowledged in the past that its air industry was suffering from U.S. sanctions, and that it has sought to buy newer second-hand planes such as Airbus models from third countries to compensate for the shortage of passenger aircraft.

In recent years, Iran has started producing small passenger aircraft with assistance from Ukraine, with the first 52-seat Iranian-assembled passenger plane entering service in 2002. The twin-propeller Iran-140 plane is assembled domestically with parts and technology from Ukraine, but it is still not widely used because only a few have been produced.

While civilian aircraft sanctions have been in place for more than three decades, Western powers have offered to ease sanctions on spare parts in return for a halt to Iran's uranium enrichment activities. Iran has rejected the offer, likening it to swapping diamonds in return for peanuts.

The West accuses Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has denied the charges, saying its program is peaceful and geared toward producing electricity and radioisotopes used to treat cancer patients.

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