Iran stops fully refueling British planes in retaliation against oil agreement

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 1:36 PM

TEHRAN - In retaliation for an agreement between the United States and European oil companies that has made it impossible for Iran's national airline to refuel its planes in most of Europe, the Islamic Republic has stopped fully providing the only British airline flying to Tehran with fuel.

British Midlands International (BMI), which operates daily flights between London and Tehran, said Monday that Iranian airline authorities have stopped fully refueling their planes for about a week, forcing the airline to make stops in third countries.

"We are currently not getting all the fuel we need at Tehran's main airport," said a spokeswoman for BMI. "So flights between London Heathrow and Tehran are currently subject to a short stop en route to take on more fuel; this is only a temporary measure."

Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi confirmed that retaliatory measures had been taken but did not provide any details, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Sunday. Rahimi echoed other Iranian officials by saying the U.S.-backed measures were illegal.

Other major European airlines fear the Iranian countermeasures are the start of more jet fuel restrictions. Airline experts say the fuel stops are costing time and money and lead to a disruption of transfer flight schedules. Eventually, they could lead to flight cancellations, which would further isolate Iranians already facing challenges caused by sanctions designed to force the country to abandon what the West suspects is an attempt to build an atomic bomb. Iran says its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful.

The Iranian jet fuel dispute follows an agreement announced in Washington on Sept. 30, in which Total of France, Statoil of Norway, Eni of Italy, and Royal Dutch Shell of Britain and the Netherlands pledged to end their investments in Iran and avoid new activity in the country's energy sector. In turn, U.S. officials said, the companies would be protected from possible U.S. penalties for doing business with Iran.

In recent weeks, several major oil firms, including British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell and Q8, have canceled jet fuel delivery contracts with Iran Air, the country's national airline. The move by some big oil companies that were not part of the September agreement appears to indicate a ripple effect across the industry, as U.S. administration officials had hoped.

Under sanctions passed by Congress in July, jet fuel sales of as much as $5 million a year are permitted. Sanctions by the European Union specifically single out the civilian operations of Iran Air as being allowed and do not call for restrictions against the airline.

A Tehran-based representative for a foreign airline said that more retaliation could be a matter of time. "BMI is just an example," the representative said on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. "If other European countries continue denying Iran Air fuel, the Iranians will probably do the same."

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