How U.S. Sanctions on Iran Could Hamper Boeing Plane Crash Investigation

The investigation into this week's deadly plane crash in Iran could be hampered by U.S. sanctions on the country, which may restrict Boeing staff from traveling to the country without special U.S. government permission.

All 176 passengers and crew of Ukraine International Airways flight PS752 from Tehran to Kiev were killed when the Boeing 737-800 crashed soon after takeoff from Imam Khomeini airport early on Wednesday.

The Ukrainian government has ordered a criminal investigation into the crash, which Iranian state media was quick to blame on a technical fault. An initial report from Iran's aviation agency said the aircraft was on fire and that the pilots tried to turn back to land at Tehran airport before it went down, Reuters reported.

The Ukrainian embassy in Tehran initially issued a statement blaming engine failure, but later retracted the assertion and said an investigative commission would establish what happened.

The crash came hours after Iran launched ballistic and cruise missile strikes against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. This was retaliation for last week's assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone in Baghdad.

The timing has led to suggestions that Iranian anti-aircraft forces may have accidentally shot the plane down, mistaking it for an attacking American aircraft or drone. There is not yet any clear evidence to support this hypothesis, but the Ukrainian government has noted the possibility.

The cause of the crash remains undetermined, but American involvement in the subsequent investigation could be hampered by U.S. sanctions on Iran that block American aerospace companies from doing business in the country.

Boeing and other American aircraft manufacturers are not allowed to export planes or aircraft parts to Iran.

Sanctions introduced by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2018—after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal—reportedly torpedoed some $10-$19 billion worth of Boeing sales to Iranian companies.

Iran's civil aviation authority has said it does not intend to hand over the crashed plane's black box recorders to Boeing for inspection. Under international law, a crash investigation is held by the state in which the incident occurred. Ukrainian investigators have traveled to Iran to inspect the site.

Boeing declined to comment as to its next steps or any planned involvement in the investigation. A spokesperson referred Newsweek back to a statement issued soon after the crash explaining that the company was "in contact with our airline customer and stand by them in this difficult time. We are ready to assist in any way needed."

To travel to Iran, Boeing staff would require special permission from the U.S. government, allowing them to bypass existing sanctions. A Treasury spokesperson told Newsweek that the department "can authorize activity that would otherwise be prohibited through the issuance of both General and Specific OFAC Licenses."

The spokesperson declined to comment on whether the department would issue licenses to Boeing if requested, explaining that the decision would be made "based on the individual facts and circumstances of the request."

The Iranians have notified the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization of the incident, according to Bloomberg. People briefed on the matter said Iran's notification to ICAO may indicate that Tehran is open to U.S. assistance through a U.N. prism, Bloomberg reported.

An ICAO spokesperson was unable to immediately confirm to Newsweek that the body had received an official communication from Tehran. ICAO said it expects Iran to undertake a full Annex 13 probe, producing a preliminary report within a month of the accident and a full report with 12 months.

ICAO's Annex 13 process governs the worldwide response to plane crashes. The annex notes that an investigation may include—among others—the state where the plane crashed, the state where the aircraft in question is registered, the home nation of the operator in question, the country in which the aircraft was designed, and the state with jurisdiction over the company responsible for the aircraft designed.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been involved in Annex 13 investigations of crashes involving U.S.-designed aircraft all over the world, including recent incidents involving other Boeing planes.

An NTSB spokesperson said it remains to be seen what role the organization will play in the crash investigation. "Our role is defined by ICAO Annex 13, but long-standing country embargoes make executing that role challenging, as do other conditions," the official told Newsweek, adding that they are not in touch with their Iranian counterparts.

The NTSB spokesperson said the body is coordinating with the State Department and other government agencies to determine the best way forward, though acknowledged that existing U.S. sanctions will undermine its ability to work on the Iranian investigation. The State Department did not reply to Newsweek's request for comment on the issue.

Peter Harrell, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Newsweek it was likely that the U.S. government would issue Boeing a licence to assist the Iran investigation, if one was requested.

But Harrell—a former State Department official who worked on sanctions against Iran, Russia, and Syria—said a key consideration is how much U.S. involvement Iran would even allow given recent months of high tensions and U.S. military strikes against the regime and its allies.

"I suspect Boeing would want to participate and Boeing wants its aircraft to be safe," Harrell said. But thus far, "Iran doesn't seem like it's going to go for that," he added.

Iran, plane crash, Boeing, sanctions, US
Rescue teams work amidst debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers and crew crashed near Imam Khomeini airport outside the Iranian capital Tehran early in the morning on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty