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Why A Stranded Norwegian Plane Is A Consequence Of U.S. Sanctions On Iran


We're going to stay with Iran because right now there is a plane stuck there that belongs to Norwegian Air, and it can't leave. It's been stuck there for months because of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Karen Duffin from our Planet Money podcast has the story of unintended consequences.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Last December, Dario Sanguigni was on a Norwegian Air flight that was heading from Dubai to Oslo, and he had settled in.

DARIO SANGUIGNI: And then - I don't know how to describe it. The plane kind of jerked to the left. You know how if you're in a car and someone was to crash into the side of you - that was kind of the pull that I felt.

DUFFIN: A few minutes later, the captain came over the intercom and said we have an engine issue, but don't worry.

SANGUIGNI: We are just going to do a bit of an emergency landing in Iran (laughter). So everyone was like, what? We're going to Iran? Are we allowed to do that? Is that safe?

DUFFIN: The plane made an emergency landing in Iran. And after a few hours, the captain told them, we've arranged for you to go to a hotel.

SANGUIGNI: But one catch - you don't have a visa for Iran, but the deal is you need to leave your passport at the airport.

DUFFIN: They handed off their passports and headed to a very nice hotel, and they waited. Norwegian Air then had to figure out two things - first, how to get its passengers out of Iran and, second, how to fix the plane and also get that out of Iran. Every day it's on the ground, they are losing money. But international sanctions will make it very hard for Norwegian to import the parts they need. The sanctions prohibit bringing technology into Iran that has more than 10 percent of American-made parts.

ERICH FERRARI: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot that goes into it.

DUFFIN: This is Erich Ferrari. He is the lawyer who helps companies navigate sanctions. Ferrari told us Norwegian Air has a few options. First, if the engine parts are sitting in some country other than the U.S. or Iran - let's say the parts are in Germany - Norwegian Air can get a one-time exemption to the sanctions to borrow and bring those parts into Iran just to fix the plane, which we're told is a long shot.

Norwegian Air did decline to go into detail with us when we called them, but we are guessing that they have already looked around in other countries. So they may just have to straight up beg for an exemption from the office that handles sanctions in the Treasury Department. It's called the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC. But Ferrari says as much as Norwegian might want to call OFAC and say come on, we're losing money here...

FERRARI: I mean, it's inherent in sanctioning that somebody is going to lose money.

DUFFIN: It's kind of the point.


DUFFIN: Instead, he recommends that Norwegian Air put their plea in terms of foreign policy or national security interests, something a little more like, dear OFAC, if you don't grant us this exemption, this plane will stay in Iran. And if that happens...

FERRARI: You don't have any control over what might happen to that plane if it will get confiscated or seized by the government.

DUFFIN: Which would mean that Iran would get a brand-new fancy plane, which the sanctions were created in part specifically to prevent. Obviously, the point of sanctions is not to disincentivize pilots from making safe emergency landings or to keep a $100 million airplane stuck on a tarmac. But that's the thing about these sanctions. They cast a very wide net. They don't just punish Iran. They're meant to cut off Iran from the rest of the world, which they do in part by penalizing anyone from anywhere who tries to do business with Iran.

And that is how the United States got in the middle of Norwegian Air's business and Dario's vacation. Dario and his fellow passengers did get out. About a day later, a new plane flew into Shiraz just to get them. But as we sit here today, Norwegian Air's plane is still in Iran. For NPR News, I'm Karen Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Duffin (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in March 2018.