Four Airbus A340s aircraft bound for Uzbekistan departed South Africa last week but diverted to Iran and now the country’s authorities say they have purchased them. 

Various flight trackers confirmed their whereabouts at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport during the week until Iranian aviation authorities confirmed the purchase of wide-bodied, long-range four-engine airliners on Wednesday. 

Hassan Khoshkhou, the spokesman for Iran's Civil Aviation Organization (CAO), said that the Airbus A340s are "made in France" and had arrived in the country "in recent days". He stopped short of providing further details on how the airliners were procured and who facilitated the purchase. 

The four A340-300 units – namely MSN 115, 180, 270, and 331 – were formerly operated by Turkish Airlines before their retirement in March and April 2019. The planes were bought by a company from Hong Kong -- AVRO Global – and were later transferred and stored at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg until December. For the past few years, the planes have simply been parked at Johannesburg Airport, and were registered in Guernsey. There was not much sign of activity until recently, when the planes were re-registered in Burkina Faso with new registration codes — XT-AKA, XT-AKB, XT-AKK and XT-ALM. 

The planes started their journeys out of South Africa apparently headed for Uzbekistan but ended up in Iran. The A340s were all produced between 1996 and 2000, so they are 22-26 years old, as are most of the Islamic Republic’s dilapidated passenger fleet, because Iran is not allowed to buy any aircraft due to the US sanctions, which have prohibited companies from selling planes that include US-made parts. 

An Airbus 340 operated by Mahan Air

This obviously presents a major challenge for Iran Air and Mahan Air, the country’s two largest airlines, which operate outdated fleets, as they can only get planes secondhand. Even the planes they get secondhand are largely acquired illegitimately through clandestine transactions to circumvent the sanctions. Rumor has it that these four Airbus A340s were purchased by Mahan Air, which already flies several Airbus A340s, most of which used to fly for Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic back in the day. 

In September, an official of Iran’s air travel services said that the reason behind a lack of plane tickets and high prices are that more than half of the country’s aircraft are grounded. "Most of the planes owned by the airlines are grounded because they need parts and it is impossible to provide them due to the sanctions," he said. He added that only about 120 to 130 airplanes out of about 340 are operational.

Alireza Barkhor, the deputy chairman of the Association of Iranian Airlines, also said last year that more than 50 percent of passenger planes are not working due to lack of spare parts, particularly engines.

Iran has suffered from shortages of civilian airliners since the 1990s and used a variety of ways to lease older planes or buy spare parts through intermediaries, but the technical state of its fleet has been deteriorating.

The 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA) suspended sanctions on purchases of Western aircraft and Iran began talks to buy new planes from Boeing and Airbus. A few Airbus planes were delivered but the Trump administration never approved the sale of US planes until Washington withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018.

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