Iran welcomes arrival of first Western plane ordered since sanctions lifted

ANKARA/PARIS (Reuters) - An Airbus A321 airliner landed in Tehran on Thursday, the first to arrive out of the 200 Western-built aircraft ordered by IranAir following the lifting of sanctions on Iran last year.

An IranAir Airbus A321 with the description "The Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran" on the passenger plane as the company takes delivery of the first new Western jet under an international sanctions deal in Colomiers, near Toulouse, France, January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

“This is a historic moment for Iran, signalling the end of the sanctions era for the country ... This is a prelude to the delivery of other aircraft and the renovation of Iran’s ageing air fleet,” state TV said.

Analysts say IranAir flies one of the world’s oldest fleets, with an average age of 23 years, and has had to rely on smuggled or improvised parts to keep them operational.

Iran, which has not directly purchased a Western-built plane in nearly 40 years, has ordered 100 airliners from Airbus and 80 from Boeing and is close to a deal to buy 20 turboprop aircraft from Toulouse-based ATR, which is jointly owned by Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo Finmeccanica.

The one exception was the sale of a plane to replace an Airbus jet shot down by the U.S. Navy in 1988.

The arrival of the Airbus 321 on Thursday comes just over a week before the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who is opposed to the deal struck by Western powers in 2015 which lifted sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on the country’s nuclear activities.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress have also objected to the pact, which was signed by the United States, Britain, Russia, France, China, Germany and Iran.

Iran’s pragmatist president Hassan Rouhani’s success in ending international sanctions by reaching the deal has also intensified a power struggle among the country’s faction-ridden elite, who have criticised the deal for a lack of tangible economic benefits since sanctions were lifted.

“This (aircraft) delivery was very crucial ... especially the timing of it. Now people can see the result of lifting sanctions,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“It will increase Rouhani’s popularity ... and his chances for re-election in May.”

IranAir Chairman Farhad Parvaresh said in France on Wednesday in taking delivery of the Airbus plane that he hoped the United States would not block the agreement.

Both Airbus and Boeing need U.S. export licences to deliver the jets because of the number of U.S. parts they contain.

Both have received licences but some need to be extended due to the lengthy delivery period and analysts expect Boeing to point to the Airbus delivery to argue its deal should go ahead.

“Everything has been done according to the international regulations and rules up to now. We hope that nothing special happens to end this contract,” Parvaresh told reporters on Wednesday.

IranAir hopes to receive at least two more aircraft from Airbus by the end of March and a total of six A320 aircraft in calendar year 2017. State TV quoted Parvaresh as saying on Thursday that Iran’s Bank of Industry and Mine had financed the purchase of the first plane delivered.

Airbus and Boeing are putting up financing help for early deliveries as many Western banks remain wary of doing deals with Iran due to restrictions on the use of the U.S. financial system that remain in effect despite the nuclear deal.

People familiar with the matter said Airbus, initially reported to have backed the first seven deliveries, was now looking at providing finance for a larger number of deliveries and that Boeing planned to finance the first half a dozen jets.

Most planes are sold in dollars but Airbus is being paid in euros. Boeing’s bankers are looking for ways for the company to get paid for future deliveries without breaking core sanctions, subject to Treasury approval, a person close to the deal said.

Editing by Greg Mahlich and Alexandra Hudson