After 34 Years, Rouhani Wants Direct Flights From Iran To US

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Iran Air
An Iran Air Boeing 747SP aircraft at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, Sept. 19, 2011.

In another sign of the mild thaw that has set in between the United States and Iran, the new president of the Islamic Republic wants to do something that the two countries haven’t done in more than three decades: have direct flights between them.

According to a story that appeared Monday on the English site of Iran’s official news agency IRNA, President Hassan Rouhani has ordered a high-level government official to examine the possibility of opening direct flights between Iran and the U.S. The last Iran Air flight from the U.S. left in November 1979, as the taking of U.S. hostages in the Tehran embassy by Iranian revolutionary forces precipitated a crisis that hasn't ended yet.

Last week, President Barack Obama and Rouhani went very close to meeting in person at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Ultimately the meeting, that had been rumored to be close at hand, didn't happen -- but Obama and Rouhani did speak on the phone. It was the first time a U.S. and Iranian leader talked directly since 1979. Together with a meeting at the U.N. between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the phone call on Friday signaled a new tone between the two countries.

Negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, which the U.S., Israel and Western allies oppose while Tehran says it's merely a civilian nuclear energy effort, may soon restart in this newly positive climate.

Iran is under a punishing Western embargo imposed as a consequence of the nuclear program -- and one consequence of that embargo is that, if Iran were ever to restart flights to America, they would have to be with the same airplanes its flag carrier Iran Air flew in 1979.  

IRNA quoted Akbar Torkan, the caretaker head of the High Council of Iranian Expatriates’ Affairs, as saying that Rouhani told him to look into restarting the flights. Since Iran can't buy Western aircraft (unless it does so through third-party dealers, purchasing used planes), those flights would likely be on aging Boeing 747SP jets bought by the previous, American-friendly regime of the Shah.

In the late 1970s, the SP Jumbo jets were the state-of-the-art in long-range airplanes. A shortened version of the then-revolutionary 747, the “special performance” (hence the model name) jumbos flew farther that any other airplane. Iran Air bought a handful, which it used to operate a nonstop route from Tehran to New York that was at the time among the longest nonstop flights in the world, at just under 10,000 km or 6,100 miles.

With Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA) and the European Airbus, a unit of EADS (EPA:EAD), barred from selling to the Iranians, Iran Air hasn’t bought anything comparable since. If the flag carrier were to reopen flights to the U.S., it would most likely fly to New York’s JFK airport, which was its only U.S. destination.

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