Days after the historic phone conversation between Barack Obama and Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, Tehran has said it will study how to restore direct flights to the US for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Rouhani has directed a top presidential aide, Akbar Torkan, to pursue the resumption of Iran-US flights, which stopped 34 years ago when Iranian revolutionary students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Torkan, the caretaker of Iran’s high council for Iranian affairs abroad, told local news agencies that Rouhani had issued the order following his meeting with Iranian expatriates in New York on the sidelines of his visit to the United Nations last week.
“He has ordered studying the start of direct flights between Iran and the United States in order to obviate the problems facing the Iranian expatriates’ visits,” Torkan was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
In New York, Rouhani participated in a dinner thrown for Iranians living in the US and pledged to facilitate their travel to Iran. The US, and Los Angeles in particular, is home to hundreds of thousands of Iranian expatriates, many of whom fled Iran soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution and still fear going back.
Flickr/Mark Harkin. This sight may get more common over U.S. skies and airports, sometime soon.
“It is the natural right of every Iranian to be able to visit his or her homeland,” Rouhani told a cheering crowd on Thursday. “Iran belongs to all Iranians … No one is allowed to deprive Iranians from the scent of their homeland.”
Travellers between Iran and the US currently have to change flights in a third country, usually in Europe or the Persian Gulf. Although personal travel is generally exempted from US sanctions, experts say there are couple of major obstacles before an Iran-US direct flight can resume.
The US treasury has barred Iranian airlines including Iran Air from being allowed to land or operate in the US. Furthermore, extraterritorial US sanctions prevents European airports from providing Iranian carriers with fuel or accepting money from them.
Unlike US flights, Iranian airlines still travel to London directly but are denied refuelling. Iran Air has at least three flights a week to London but has to stop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to refuel each time it returns to Tehran. It can refuel in Ljubljana since the airport there has no direct flight to the US.
Iranians have long complained that sanctions such as those imposed on airlines largely affect ordinary people rather than the Islamic republic’s government. Iranian government officials often enjoy more freedom in regard to flying.
Iranians are also cut off from the outside world financially because of banking restrictions. Those wishing to book hotels abroad, subscribe to an international journal or simply buy a book from Amazon have no straightforward way to do so.
Rouhani’s extraordinary week in New York is still creating ripples in Tehran. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic republic’s Revolutionary Guards, told the conservative Tasnim news agency on Monday that he approved of Rouhani’s manouevres in New York but considered his conversation with Obama premature.
“The honourable president adopted mighty and appropriate stances during this trip, particularly in his address to the United Nations general assembly,” Jafari said. “He didn’t find time to meet Obama in person … he should have refused to accept Obama’s phone call and waited for the US government to show concrete action.” The Americans say the request for the call was made by the Iranian side.
On Monday the reformist Shargh newspaper published an interview with Alan Eyre, the US state department’s Farsi spokesman, on its front page. It is unprecedented for an Iranian publication to publish such an interview with a US government official.
Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar, a Friday prayer imam in the central city of Isfahan, said the usual “death to America” chants after weekly prayers were “not verses of Qu’ran” and therefore could be dropped.