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Airplane diplomacy: Iran ‘to study’ possibility of direct flights to US

Published time: September 30, 2013 16:43
Iran Air passenger planes sit on the tarmac of the domestic Mehrabad airport in the Iranian capital Tehran (AFP Photo/Behrouz Mehri)

Iran Air passenger planes sit on the tarmac of the domestic Mehrabad airport in the Iranian capital Tehran (AFP Photo/Behrouz Mehri)

Iranian President Hossan Rouhani is considering resuming flights between Tehran and the US for the first time in more than three decades, in another gesture of rapprochement between the two countries.

“The president issued an order to study how it would be possible to establish direct flights between Iran and the United States to resolve the transportation problems of Iranians residing in the US,” Akbar Torkan, a senior presidential advisor who heads the country’s expatriates’ affairs committee, was quoted as saying by the Iranian media.

The two countries severed diplomatic relations in 1980, shortly after Iranians took US Embassy officials hostage following the Islamic Revolution.

There have been no direct flights since the fallout, but US census statistics reveal that there are nearly 500,000 Iranian expats living in the country.

The prospect of direct flights has been raised several times in the past decade, including as recently as three months ago, when former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying that the flights would be reinstated for the sake of “public welfare,” and Iranian media reported that US carrier Delta Airlines would be the route’s operator.

At the time, Delta denied the report, not least because US sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program make it illegal for any US civilian airplane to fly to the country.

But this time the prospect appears more realistic, following a series of other landmark conciliatory moves.

In the past week, the Iranian president has publicly condemned the killing of Jews by Nazis, in contrast to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly called the Holocaust a “Zionist myth” (though the exact nature of Rouhani’s words has been hotly contested). 

Christiane Amanpour (L) and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani (Still from YouTube video/CNNInternational)

Rouhani has also spoken to US President Barack Obama in a 15-minute phone conversation – the first time the leaders of the two countries have communicated directly since the Islamic Revolution.

Most substantively, the country sat down for a new round of negotiations with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The parties were previously at loggerheads, as the US accused Tehran of secretly developing a nuclear weapon, and denying access to its facilities, while Iranian leaders insisted that its atomic program was peaceful. The talks in New York were described as “constructive” by both sides.

But not everyone has been swayed by Rouhani’s softer public stance.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards - the elite wing of the army, who consider themselves the ideological protectors of the Islamic Republic - have said that the president should have refused to speak to Obama.

"If we see errors being made by officials, the revolutionary forces will issue the necessary warnings," General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Guards' leader, declared in New York on Monday.

Both Rouhani, and the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have recently told the Guards not to meddle in politics.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the world to look beyond Iran’s “sweet talk and the blitz of smiles." Netanyahu, who is in the US for talks with Obama, says any concessions from Iran have been earned through sanctions, and that those have to be tightened further if Iran is to be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon.