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Boeing Explores Doing Business With Iran's Commercial Airlines


Early this year while reporting for NPR, I bordered an airliner inside Iran. The flight attendant noticed I was a foreigner. And she pointed out that our plane was American-made. It was a Boeing 727. That was, of course, a very old Boeing model, originally built about half a century ago. This 727, apparently, was one of the relatively few in the world that are still in commercial service. It was still flying because Iran has not had access to new American planes for decades. Now that economic sanctions are lifted, that could change. Boeing executives visited Tehran last weekend. NPR's Jackie Northam is covering this story. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's Boeing want to do?

NORTHAM: Well, Boeing confirmed in a statement at - that its representatives were in Iran on Saturday and Sunday and they did meet with Iranian airlines. And this is first in what Boeing calls a multistep process, that everything was done in coordination with the U.S. government. So a Boeing spokesman told me that the meeting was merely to scope out what the Iranians are looking for, you know, how many and what kind of planes it may be looking for, what it's planning for routes and also maintenance on existing aircraft. Iran has one of the oldest airline fleets in the world, and Boeing now has potential to make a big sale.

INSKEEP: I imagine the passengers on that 727 will be very happy about the maintenance contract along with the possibility of new planes. But how easy is it for Boeing to move in now?

NORTHAM: Well, under the nuclear agreement, U.S. aircraft sales are allowed, but that doesn't mean Boeing can just rush in. For one thing, it has to follow very specific guidelines laid out by the U.S. government, and any contracts will have to be approved by the administration. You know, Steve, one of the things that they could be examining is whether someone attached to Iranian airlines is on a remaining U.S. sanctions list or whether the technology on the new planes could be used for military aircraft. And even if Boeing clears all those hurdles, lots can still happen. If you look at the France-based Airbus, Boeing's biggest competitor, you know, it signed a deal with Iran for about 120 planes just days after the sanctions were lifted, but it's having trouble with funding. You know, international banks are worried they could violate some of those U.S. sanctions that are going to remain in place.

INSKEEP: Very interesting, but you've also pointed here at the complexity of this situation. There are all these national security considerations that you mentioned, but there's also going to be a commercial consideration here, right? There's going to be a question of jobs in the United States.

NORTHAM: Yes, it could mean a lot of jobs, which would be good news to the company. You know, Boeing recently announced plans to lay off about 4,000 people in its commercial airline division. But as I said, this is the first meeting, so there's not even a real hard figure for potential sales yet. And, you know, at the same time, Boeing tells me that it needs to deal with Iran. Otherwise, it could be locked out of that market, the Iranian market, for several decades. And there is a market. You know, as you say, Iran's fleets of planes are old and worn out and need to be replaced, and many of them were bought before the, you know, the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

INSKEEP: How controversial has this nuclear deal remained as some months have passed now?

NORTHAM: So this is a concern of, you know, companies like Boeing who wants to go in. What happens if this nuclear agreement falls apart? Where does that leave the company? Now surely, this is, you know, all taken into consideration in any of their negotiations and contracts and that. But, you know, it's just a couple months old that sanctions have been lifted, so it's still pretty tenuous out there.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should add that the Republican presidential candidates have said that if one of them is elected, they will revisit or even throw out this deal.

NORTHAM: Sure, and this is just another reason why Boeing is moving cautiously on any sort of deal. There's a lot of unknowns out there still.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.