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May 21, 2024, 8:02am EDT
Middle East
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Semafor Signals

Questions swirl over cause of Iran helicopter crash as ex-FM blames US sanctions

Insights from Bloomberg, Iran International, and the Financial Times

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A view of the wreckage of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter at the crash site on a mountain in Varzaghan area, northwestern Iran, May 20, 2024. Stringer/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
Stringer/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
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The cause of a helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has not been determined — but Iran’s former foreign minister blamed US sanctions on aviation parts for the incident, allegations the US rejected as “utterly baseless.”

“One of the culprits behind yesterday’s tragedy is the United States, because of its sanctions that bar Iran from procuring essential aviation parts,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian state media. “[This] will be recorded in the list of US crimes against the Iranian people.”

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Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Iran’s aging fleet difficult to maintain under sanctions

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Source:  
Bloomberg

Iran has been effectively barred from purchasing new aircraft or aviation equipment from Western suppliers because of sanctions, some of which date back to its 1979 revolution. Its planes and helicopters have an average age of about 25 years, while repairs often rely on old parts from previous models, Bloomberg reported. “As a result, Iran flies some of the oldest and most basic helicopters still in use and relies on the skills of its engineers to find ways to keep them in operation with limited access to new materials,” the outlet noted. While it is possible for Tehran to buy equipment from Russia and China, it is typically blocked from accessing more up-to-date technology.

Questions over why helicopter was cleared for takeoff

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The Financial Times

The helicopter that carried Raisi and other top officials took off in thick fog in an area with difficult terrain and it remains unclear why the flight was given the all-clear. The old age of the fleet and Iran’s inability to secure new parts means that the helicopter likely encountered technical malfunctions, the Financial Times noted. “Iran’s air fleet is a metaphor for the regime as a whole,” Ali Ansari, an Iran expert from the University of St Andrews, told the paper. “It’s old, should not be able to keep flying, and yet does — until it doesn’t.”

Iranians poised to believe conspiracy theories

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Source:  
Iran International

Analysts have said it is unsurprising that Iranian regime loyalists have placed blame on the US for the crash. “It certainly fits with Iranian style,” Patrick Clawson, a research counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the UK-based outlet Iran International. “Iranians are prone to believe in conspiracy theories [in] personal life, business life, and political life,” he said. Iran has suffered several deadly air disasters in recent decades, but not all of the aircraft involved were US-made, he noted: Several crashes occurred in Russian- and European-designed aircraft that would not be subject to the same sanctions.

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