By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Qatar Airways has announced a "150 percent" increase in flights to Iran
WASHINGTON -- Iran's homegrown airline industry was once a point of pride for the Islamic republic, which has long prided itself in its independence and followed a policy of looking "neither East nor West."
But sanctions preventing the country from purchasing parts to maintain aircraft or new Western planes to update aging fleets, and denying some European refueling points on international flights, may have caused the country to swallow that pride and look abroad for help.
Relief, it appears, will come from Qatar Airways, which has been tabbed to take over an unspecified number of domestic flights within Iran. The unprecedented announcement was promptly followed by news that the Doha-based airline plans to greatly expand its flight offerings to Iranian cities.
Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban and Development Shahriar Afandizadeh announced on October 30 that a deal on domestic flights had been finalized, and said the date of implementation would be announced by his ministry.
Few details were provided, but based on the agreement Qatar Airways will have to cooperate with Iranian airlines as required by Iranian regulations banning foreign companies from operating domestic routes.
"The reason for the move is to increase the capabilities of our airlines," Afandizadeh was quoted as saying by Iran's news agencies.
The measure is also seen by some as a means of countering sanctions.
"Allowing Qatar or any other foreign country to operate some of our domestic flight is aimed at diminishing the pressure of the sanctions, and it is a suitable policy under the current conditions," Iranian lawmaker Ali Akbar Moghanjoughi was quoted as saying about the agreement.
Kamran Dadkhah, a U.S.-based professor of Middle Eastern economies, says the deal could be seen as a way of allowing Iran to bypass sanctions but that it would come at a heavy price.
"A very small country will be in charge of Iran's domestic flights. As the result of the deal the services provided by Iranians and their jobs will practically be under the control of another country," Dadkhah said.
For its part Qatar Airways announced on October 31 a "150 percent increase in overall frequency" of its flights to Iran beginning December 1. The airline said there will be an additional 31 flights each week from Doha, with the historic city Isfahan being added as a destination city. Qatar Airways has already flights to three major Iranian cities: Tehran, Mashhad, and Shiraz.
The press release did not include any information about the airline taking over Iranian domestic flights.
"Today's announcement is a historic moment showing the strengthening of ties between our two countries," Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said.
Blake Hounshell, the Doha-based managing editor of "Foreign Policy," tells RFE/RL the deal between Iran and Qatar could be viewed as a setback in U.S. efforts to isolate the Islamic republic over its sensitive nuclear work.
"It's going to be seen -- in Washington certainly -- as one more example of Qatar not being as cooperative as United States would like about sanctions. I don't think Qatar is violating any laws here but they're certainly violating the spirit of isolating Iran," Hounshell said.
He believes the deal is part of a pattern in Qatari foreign policy of playing Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States against one another.
"A lot of that has to do with Syria, and the Qataris believing that they can persuade Iran to put pressure on Syria to reform or get rid of Assad. So I think the Qataris are using the open door, and the relatively good relations they have with Iranians to try to be useful," Hounshell said.
Iran has a handful of airlines operating domestic routes, with Iran Air holding the honor of being the oldest and most dominant. Many of the airlines' fleets consist of aging U.S. aircraft, but have been prevented by U.S. sanctions imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution from being able to buy spare parts. Iran subsequently turned to Soviet or Russian made planes, such as Tupolevs, to renew fleets, and efforts have also been made to circumvent sanctions by producing airliners domestically.
While the planned increase in flights between Doha and Iranian cities appears to have gone largely unnoticed among most Iranians, the deal over domestic flights has generated nationalistic feelings and criticism.
"Iran Air was founded 25 years (in 1946) before Qatar gained its [independence] (in 1971)," read a message widely shared on Facebook that warned, "Qatar is conquering Iran's airspace."
Maryam, a middle-aged woman in the Iranian capital, said she has mixed feelings about the deal.
On the one hand, she expresses anger at the agreement, which she believes is the result of the Iranian authorities' "incompetency" in running the country.
"Most Iranians probably didn't even know where Qatar is. Yet now we have to make concession to this small Arab country."
On the other hand, she says, people will feel safer flying with Qatar Airways instead of Iranian airlines that have suffered a number of tragic accidents in recent years.
Officials and experts have blamed the sanctions imposed by the United States following the 1979 revolution for Iran's poor air safety record and a series of deadly crashes that have left hundreds of dead.
Many of the crashes have involved Tupolevs.
Iranians say they are horrified about the perspective of flying those planes. Iran announced in January that it would ban flights by all its Tupolev aircraft.
"I will definitely choose Qatar Airways over those Soviet-made planes, even if I have to pay more," says one man in Tehran, noting that officials have announced that the cost of the Qatar Airways-operated flights would be 25 percent higher than those run by Iranian airlines.
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