TEHRAN: Iranian domestic flights are filled with fear. Prayer beads are the constant companion of passengers in this stressful atmosphere, from takeoff to landing, until the scary sound of the old engines stop.

This fear is due to Iran’s long history of airplane crashes. According to Iranian government statistics, more than 200 Iranian airplanes have crashed between 1979 and 2014, causing 1,985 fatalities and many more injuries. Iran tops the accidents list in the Aviation Safety Network’s (ASN) safety database as a result.

Decades of heavy sanctions imposed by the members of United Nations Security Council and the US individually against the Iranian government after the 1979 Islamic revolution, has left the country with one of the world’s oldest airplane fleets.

The embargoes began after the 1980 American Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran and were gradually tightened over the next 35 years because of Iran’s human rights violations, nuclear program and alleged support for terrorism. The embargoes restricted the selling of airplanes and their spare parts to Iran because of their potential dual use for military purposes. They also restricted the fueling and landing of Iranian airplanes outside Iran.

Over time, this approach created Iran’s aged passenger fleet, the state of which has caused some European airports to refuse landing rights to Iranian flights owing to safety concerns. The sanctions have left Iran with only 166 aged but operational aircraft and 100 non-operational ones, now used for spare parts. The working planes have an average of 23 years service now, one year short of their retirement age, according to figures released by Iran’s transport minister, Abbas Akhoundi, on June 22nd.

The recently-signed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) which lifted the sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear program, has opened the door to deals with international airplane manufacturers. Iran wasted no time in commencing negotiations with Airbus and Boeing, with which it has since signed tentative agreements. These agreements will eliminate the sanction-era mediators who used to earn $5–7 million per airplane purchase deal, according to Akhoundi. Previously, the sanctions forced the government to buy second-hand airplanes through a number of companies from various countries at 30–40 percent more than their market price.

While the government was the main target of the international sanctions, ordinary people have been paying a heavy cost with their lives and money. Iran’s voiceless millions have been forced to endure high prices and poor services, exacerbated by the absence of local and international competition in Iran’s airline sector. This is why Iranians prefer to use other travel options than flying, since flying is considered too expensive, frustrating and risky.

In spite of the critical condition of Iranian’s airplane fleet, concerns about this issue have only been raised by the United Nations and the media infrequently. In 2005, the rising number of fatal air crashes urged the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN body, to warn about the adverse consequences of US sanctions against Iran. In July 2013, a symposium was held in The Hague entitled “Unilateral Sanctions and International Law: Views on Legitimacy and Consequences”.

It showcased the significant disagreement of international experts over the embargoes against Iran. In several stories in the Western media, including the Washington Post (September 4, 2012), the Guardian (August 10, 2012) and Reuters (February 9, 2012), the crisis of supplying basic commodities such as food and medicine for cancer patients, as well as the high rate of inflation in Iran, has been raised.

Iran has drafted a plan to resume its economic growth and the rate of airplanes per capita. Although in recent months Iran has placed purchase orders for more than 200 aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, this is not adequate to replace the retired airplanes. According to the Iranian Students’ News Agency reports, current airplanes cannot cover more than 5 percent of potential demand in Iran.

The global index of aircraft per capita, being the number of operational aircraft per one million people, lists Iran as one of the lowest in the world with only 1.6 aircraft. Compare this with countries like the US, Australia, the UAE, Qatar, and Singapore, which have the highest rates with 20 aircraft per one million people. Forecasting 5 percent economic growth for Iran, Kambiz Babaie at Tarabar News, believes that Iran needs 409 operational aircraft by 2018 to adequately service its population of nearly 74 million, which would place it on par with Turkey with 3.4 aircraft per million people.

Iranian airlines are not able to compete with their regional counterparts – Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad, and Turkish Airways— which are among the best in the world. Iran’s transport minister has remarked that Iranians pay $4 billion per year to fly with foreign airlines. In order to enable Iranian airlines to enter this market, they require 400 planes for middle and long-haul flights and 100 planes for short-haul flights.

Considering that Iran plans to place orders for more than 400 airplanes, the country is a huge potential market for aircraft companies. To facilitate the purchase of such a large number of aircraft, these plane manufactures have also presented the option of leasing aircraft to Iran. The contracts have yet to be finalized because the sellers are waiting to ensure that all political obstacles are removed first. Hardliners in both Iran and the West, particularly in the US, are trying to sabotage these deals. The reason lies in the financial benefits of the sanctions gained by these same hardliners.

In spite of all the obstacles, the finalization of the aircraft deals would be the most significant outcome of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the Western countries.