Did US sanctions lead to Raisi helicopter crash? Some aviation experts are doubtful

Analysts say the president and his entourage may have had safer transport options

Rescue team members search an area near the crash site of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran. AFP
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Iran has formed a commission to investigate Sunday’s crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

But a row has developed over the root cause of the crash with Russia and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying US sanctions on aircraft parts are to blame for the catastrophic failure of equipment.

Spare parts for Iran’s US-supplied aircraft – obtained under the pro-US Shah in the 1970s, are blocked by sanctions – but Iran does have newer Russian Mi-17 helicopters that can be used for civilian transport, delivered about 20 years ago.

“I find it confusing that the Iranian President and Foreign Minister were travelling in difficult terrain and terrible weather in a 40 year old American helicopter for which it is difficult for Iran to get spare parts, when Iran has modern and well maintained Russian helicopters available,” says Norman Ricklefs, head of risk consultancy Namea.

Farzin Nadhimi, a fellow at think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked in Iran's aviation sector in the early 1990s, agrees and says the Mi-17 would have been the logical choice.

He adds that the Bell 212 Mr Raisi was travelling in – purchased during a brief detente between Iran and the US and Iran in the early 1990s, was less reliable than the Mi-17 but probably airworthy compared to some of Iran’s older US-made aircraft from the 1970s.

The cause of sanctions

Iran, Mr Nadhimi says, could have chosen to have a more “normal” relationship with countries like the US instead of meddling across the Middle East and building proxy militia groups, putting itself at loggerheads with a large number of countries.

Better relations would have enabled them access to international aviation markets, as was the case in the 1970s.

“In the early 1990s, when I was working with aviation industries, as a conscript officer, and also an aviation journalist, I witnessed how the Ministry of Defence purchased four Bell helicopters, 212 to 412, exactly the same number, the same helicopters that are in service with the Republican flight. And they were transported to Iran directly from Canada as part of a deal with the US. And so things could get better if Iran chose to do so,” he says.

“Regarding sanctions, it was a self-inflicted wound,” he says.

“They chose to be an empty status quo regime. And they chose to take over the US Embassy in 1980 and run against the current, so I think that that needs to be clear. Whatever they choose, to avoid advocating destruction of other countries or trying to meddle in other countries, sanctions can easily go.

“And we saw the example, after the JCPOA (nuclear deal with the US and EU that saw sanctions eased) Iran signed big aircraft deals with Airbus, Boeing, ATR. So if everything went well, they would be able to take delivery of their planes, everything was going to change. They started to receive several very modern helicopters from European manufacturers, Airbus to be specific, after the JCPOA. But again, things went back to the way they were before.”

The restrictions have left Iran with few options, except to maintain hundreds of very old US aircraft including 50-year-old F-14 jets.

During the 1970s, Iran managed to gain some domestic expertise in aviation, operating a large factory for US firm Bell. Over the years however, the sector has suffered significant brain drain, and sanctions have prevented Iran from obtaining spare parts for aircraft.

The numbers are indicative: Iran purchased 208 F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft from the US in 1974. Those were used after the revolution in the Iran-Iraq war where, according to one Iranian general, “nearly 50 per cent” were lost – leaving less than 100 left at the end of the conflict. Less than 60 are flying today.

The roughly 40 that are missing have been lost in accidents or have been pulled apart for spare components to keep the remainder flying, a practice known as cannibalisation.

This happens in western militaries too, but great pains are taken to avoid it, because according to one US government inquiry into the practice, it doubles maintenance time and can damage aircraft as air frames are stripped down for maintenance more than normally required.

Iran has also sought to create its own versions of US-supplied aircraft, which provoked Bell to launch a lawsuit against Tehran in 2006.

Bell, according to the lawsuit, discovered that the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) had taken over its old factory near Tehran, which was abandoned in the 1979 revolution.

Bell alleged that Iran manufactured the Shahed 278 – its near identical version of its Jet Ranger 206. Iran was later accused of copying the US F-5, which entered service in 1964, with its Saeqeh fighter jet.

“They have been working on self-sufficiency based on the technical infrastructure that was created before their revolution by those very countries and companies. And with regard to Bell, they had a joint partnership with the Iranian Ministry of Defence, they created this aircraft support renewal company, a massive facility and investment in Tehran so they could support and maintain and overhaul Iranian Bell helicopters, and they actually saved large caches of spare parts that they had purchased from Iran and Italy before the revolution.”

After decades of sanctions, Iranian engineers have a long history of reverse engineering, or copying foreign military equipment. But there are limits: critical components such as microchips may not be available due to sanctions, and are impossible to manufacture at the cutting edge, without a world-leading tech industry. Without these microchips, vital equipment such as flight control computers are near impossible to manufacture.

There is also the need for precision machining to make high quality aircraft parts from sanctioned materials, such as high grade titanium.

“They never launched a real production line for helicopters, because they still relied on the existing engines and transmissions, they produce the fuselage. And they use the existing instrument panels and engines and transmissions. And therefore, the number of helicopters produced in Iran are very limited. And that was the case with those F-5 jet fighters,” says Mr Nadhimi.

Despite these struggles, Mr Nadhimi says the root cause of the disaster was likely human error, rather than technical, again emphasising that Iran has chosen to have a hostile relationship with multiple foreign countries, including the US.

“I think despite sanctions they have been able to fly, maintain their aircraft in fairly good conditions, they are airworthy and they can fly safely. Many of those accidents happen because of mismanagement, misjudgement. It begins with pilot error and goes to decisions further up the hierarchy.”

“Without a thorough accident investigation it may never be known what caused the crash of the Bell 212,” he says.

“Sourcing spare parts and supply chain reliability are certainly a challenge for Iran. That being said, the Bell 212 is ubiquitous so finding quality parts to maintain airworthiness of that aircraft would not be insurmountable. Certainly easier than for the F-14!” says Chris Pehreson, a retired US air force colonel and military aviation expert.

Updated: May 22, 2024, 10:43 AM