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An American plane in Iran explained by Tehran

Published time: April 19, 2014 10:45
Edited time: April 20, 2014 04:17
Screenshot from nytimes.com

Screenshot from nytimes.com

Despite the Islamic Republic’s off-limit trade status, a US corporate jet was spotted on the tarmac of a major airport in Tehran, fueling speculation in aviation and political circles as to how and why the aircraft got there.

A New York Times reporter on Tuesday kicked up international intrigue when he photographed something not normally seen these days at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport: A US-registered corporate jet, a Bombardier with call letters N604EP on the engines and a small US flag decal just barely visible on the tail.

Images of the aircraft sparked heated speculation as to how and why the US-registered aircraft was in the Iranian capital.

Originally declining to comment on the matter at the time of the disclosure, Iran now says the US-registered aircraft was carrying officials from the African country of Ghana.

“This plane was carrying a high-ranking delegation from Ghana and according to an announcement by the country’s government, the jet was in possession of the US and chartered by Ghana’s presidency,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on Friday, as quoted by Press TV.

“The passengers of the plane comprised a delegation of Ghanaian officials headed by the brother of the country’s president, and none of its crew were Americans,” she added.

The Ghanaian delegation visited Iran to follow up on agreements reached between the two states back in 2012, she said, adding that the delegation left on Thursday.

Meanwhile, an aide to President John Mahama denied that the president's brother – multi-millionaire Ibrahim Mahama – was part of the Iranian visit.

“He wasn’t in Tehran. His company's plane was," the aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Lots of speculation in there is false.”

US federal aviation records revealed that the Bank of Utah is the trustee of the 19-passenger aircraft, managing the plane for a group of investors who apparently wish to remain anonymous. However, US aviation and government officials, who would need to clear any American flights into the Islamic country, have declined to comment on the aircraft’s presence in Iran.

Officials at Bank of Utah, which is listed as a trustee for over 1,000 various types of aircraft, say the matter is between the owners of the aircraft and US government officials to resolve.

Scott Parkinson, senior vice president for marketing and communication with the Ogden-based bank, said the financial institution is aware of the plane in Iran but is not investigating at this point.

"As far as the legality of that, flying into that country, that's really between the beneficiary and the Department of State, and maybe the FAA," Parkinson said, as quoted by AP. "Not us."

But the practice has drawn scrutiny from the federal government recently.

A government watchdog recently warned that non-US citizens have registered 5,600 planes with the Federal Aviation Administration through trustees, effectively hiding the owners' identities. This significant loophole in the law could have major consequences in the future regarding Washington’s ability to keep the lid on sanctions, not to mention guarding state security.

At the same time, the mere presence of the Bombardier, which is powered by US-made General Electric engines, could violate US sanctions involving the transfer of US technologies out of the country.

Finally, judging by the reported appearance of the Bombardier Challenger N604EP at other significant venues will only serve to heighten public interest in the US-registered aircraft.

Airplane enthusiasts, many of whom photograph planes arriving and departing at airports around the world, reportedly spotted the same airplane at an airport in Zurich “around the time of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, held in January,” the Times reported.

Another photographer tracked the aircraft departing a London airport for Ghana last October.

The US Treasury Department will look into the matter to determine if there were any violations of sanctions imposed on Iran, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Friday.

"The Iranian transactions and sanctions regulations prohibit the exportation of goods, services or technology directly or indirectly from the United States or by a US person to Iran and would generally prohibit U.S.-registered aircraft from flying to Iran," Psaki said.

However, the spokeswoman noted that “there's a lot of nuance and a lot of different questions here.”

News of the US-registered aircraft in the Iranian capital comes during a relative thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran as the two sides continue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which the US, Israel and other countries fear is an attempt on the part of the Islamic Republic to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied the allegations, saying its research is soley dedicated to providing new energy sources.

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