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Iran and Boeing Have a Deal

When Iran and Boeing announced an agreement last week for the sale of 80 airplanes, four decades of rancor and mistrust were put to rest. Oddly, too, the $16.6 billion deal will give a lot of work to 10,000 employees at the U.S. aircraft maker, and will create jobs indirectly for another 100,000 people. The latter work for the huge constellation of third party suppliers and all kinds of related industries, from aircraft-parts makers to the hospitality sector that will tend to these workforce needs.

This happens at the strangest of times, for an erratic man—to put it mildly—is about to succeed Barack Obama as president of the U.S. One day, he threatens to void the nuclear agreement worked out with Iran after some of the most laborious and difficult negotiations in modern history. Then he singles out Boeing for dealing with the Iranians. But a little later, he bemoans that Iran is about to make a large purchase from Airbus, bypassing its American rival. Still, no surprises there: such is rule by tweet, which he will inflict on the millions who voted for him (and hence deserve him) and, tragically, those who did not.

But let’s get back to more serious matters and more serious people. There is a sad background to this deal, too. It has to do with the sanctions imposed on Iran after the 1979 hostage crisis –the 444 days in which militants at the height of the Islamic Revolution took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Airlines and air travel were two of the hardest hit sectors of the Iranian economy. Iran was prevented from buying aircraft, parts or get regular maintenance. (The plane you see in the photo is not a Boeing; it’s an aging Fokker 100 your correspondent flew in February 2014, from Tehran to Tabriz). It finally got rid of its old, Soviet-made Tupolevs in 2009, which had been banned from Western airports, when the string of air tragedies became too much to bear even for as hardened a nation as Iran, that has seen more than its share of bloodshed in the last fifty years.

An incomplete list of air accidents in Iran or involving Iranian aircraft does not mention any incident between December 25, 1952, when the crash of a DC-3 operated by Iran Air caused the death of 27 people, until January 1980, with the crash of a Boeing 727 that left 128 dead. It would be the beginning of a deadly era of some thirty air incidents: 1,891 people—the tally may be inaccurate—perished since then in air fatalities until 2014.

To be sure, the Iranian regime consistently provided ample justification for the concerns that motivated the sanctions. Yet the sanctions regime hit the poorest and the weakest Iranians, for misdeeds in which they had little or no say. The people these sanctions intended to punish—high government officials, senior military officers, or revolutionary cadres—had the means to escape the worst of these restrictions.

Abbas Akhoundi, Iran’s minister of roads and urban development, announced the Boeing contract on state television. “In spite of all the warmongering, businessmen and financiers gave a signal to the world that we are supporters of calmness, security and the development of relations.” We can only hope. Iranians and Americans, too.