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Why did the Iranian president use such an old helicopter, and for which, being American-made, there were difficulties in procuring spare parts? Why Iran is not buying new Chinese or Russian helicopters?

Reuters reported on the 20th that Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported that Raisi was riding a U.S.-made Bell-212 helicopter at the time of the accident. The Bell-212 is a helicopter made by Bell Helicopter, an American defense contractor, that was first flown in 1968.link

Iran operates various helicopters, but international sanctions make it difficult to procure parts and maintain them properly. The helicopter involved in the incident was reportedly a Bell UH-1N Twin Huey, a utility military variant of the U.S.-made Bell 212. The UH-1N typically has a fifteen-seat configuration, with one pilot and fourteen passengers. The U.S. delivered them to Iran as a high-priority customer directly before the revolution in 1979. link

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    Is there any evidence that the helicopter in question is actually that old?
    – Joe W
    Commented May 20 at 19:18
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    It says right there that sanctions make it difficult to get the parts. Perhaps even from Russia or China. There were several resolutions from the whole Security Council that imposed sanctions on Iran, after all, starting nearly two decades ago. And even the sanctions from individual countries could cause foreign suppliers to not want to deal with Iran for fear of losing business.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 20 at 19:35
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    @Obie2.0: I suppose the Q is why they didn't buy new Russian or Chinese helos. I think there's no prohibition on them buying that. Commented May 21 at 0:20
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    Also note that poor weather (fog) was a factor, if not the main factor for this crash. dims.apnews.com/dims4/default/8902184/2147483647/strip/true/… It's not clear if the helicopter had any tech issues. apnews.com/article/… And they purchased that helo relatively recently "Iran purchased in the early 2000s". Commented May 21 at 0:25
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    Note that "old" aircraft are still quite common almost everywhere. I see the Bell 212 in particular fairly frequently in the US. If you keep them properly maintained, aircraft can last a very long time (they're built to significantly higher standards than other vehicles like cars).
    – bta
    Commented May 22 at 3:05

4 Answers 4

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Iran went through a major revolution in 1979, which later resulted in the Iran hostage crisis, where Iran stormed the US embassy and held hostages. As a result, Iran has been under an embargo from most Western nations.

A lot of what Iran has in terms of aircraft is pre-revolution Western-made. For instance, they still fly the ancient F-14 tomcat fighters (the US retired its F-14 fleet in 2006)

As of 2022, the F-14 remains in service with Iran's air force, though in low numbers of combat-ready aircraft due to a lack of spare parts.

Why not just buy from China or Russia? Part of that might be that Iran doesn't have a large economy (about $400B USD in GDP) or a lot of money. China and Russia want cash, not bartering for oil

“The key problem is Iran can’t pay dollars or euros in cash to China, [Iran] prefer using oil and natural gas to exchange weapons,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute.

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    Found on AtlanticCouncil: "In 2022, Iran bought $2.12 billion worth of machinery from China, as well as $1.43 billion worth of electronics." That's enough money to buy some helicopters though. link
    – Arwenz
    Commented May 20 at 21:06
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    China needs oil. Now that the Russians have no better choice as to sell them, maybe not so strongly, but the same Russians can not buy much lesser amount of western goods for their dollars. Beside that, the ultimate $ location is the U.S. bank system and if an account is known Russian, it will be frozen. I think, today it would be better to sell oil to the Chinese for yuan, then buy helicopter from the Russians for the yuan, and the Russians will buy drones and weapon factories from the Chinese for the yuan. But it is a new thing, and that was probably a trusted helicopter of the government.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented May 20 at 22:43
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    @Arwenz Yes... but Iran currently is funding proxy groups as well. A country needs to buy a fleet to be cost effective, and that alone may be too much for Iran to bear.
    – Machavity
    Commented May 21 at 4:02
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    @Arwenz Buying helicopters to ferry around a president with limited power (all real power is held by the Supreme Leader), who is only there so they can pretend they are a democracy, is probably not very high in their priorities. Did you even know his name before the accident? They prefer to spend what little hard currency they have elsewhere.
    – jcaron
    Commented May 21 at 11:59
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    They actually make clones of Bell 214 helos. So this isn't entirely correct. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PANHA timesaerospace.aero/features/irans-helicopter-options And also some models that aren't straight clones en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saba-248_(helicopter) Commented May 21 at 14:08
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Ali Vaez, Iran project director with the International Crisis Group, said that while U.S. sanctions have deprived Iran of the ability to renew and repair its fleet for decades, “one can’t overlook human error and the weather’s role in this particular accident.’’

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst and consultant, said Iran likely is tapping the black market for parts, but questioned whether Iran has the maintenance skills to keep older helicopters flying safely.

“Black-market parts and whatever local maintenance capabilities they’ve got — that’s not a good combination,” he said.

There are 15 Bell 212 helicopters with an average age of 35 years currently registered in Iran that could be in active use or in storage, according to aviation data firm Cirium.

https://apnews.com/article/iran-president-ebrahim-raisi-426c6f4ae2dd1f0801c73875bb696f48

They bought black market parts, and had a maintenance team that maintained the helicopters. They probably thought that they could maintain the helicopters with the parts bought, but it's possible that they weren't able to properly assess how well-maintained the helicopters were.

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It’s not just one helicopter involved. Iran has a fleet of five Bell 212 aircraft helicopters used for VIP transport. Replacing them would have cost at least ten million dollars . In the days that they were even more heavily sanctioned it would not have been easy money to come by. There would also be other issues involved. A country as belligerent as Iran probably isn’t so interested in having to to go to other belligerent countries like Russia and China for a new VIP squadron transport fleet. You never know what they might want in return for such an exchange knowing that Iran is vulnerable and has no other options to replace that fleet.

Finally it probably wasn’t enough of a priority for them. Things like replacing the VIP squadron transport fleets always have a lot of bureaucracy and red tape involved. A country as belligerent and as war mongering as Iran never has safety high up on their list of priorities. Why worry about helicopters when you can be spending the time developing new missiles and smuggling money and weapons to terrorist groups around the world?

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    They actually make clones of Bell 214 helos. So this isn't entirely correct. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PANHA timesaerospace.aero/features/irans-helicopter-options And also some models that aren't straight clones en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saba-248_(helicopter) Commented May 21 at 14:08
  • There may also be reasons for preferring military equipment to modern luxury transport helicopters. I'm not sure of the specifics, but it could include e.g. defensive abilities, reliability, capabilities (not including adverse weather I guess), availability of parts (more modern aircraft may have fewer sources of parts which could be sanctioned), the image projected from military craft (we're tough), or the political liability from spending lots of money on luxury aircraft.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 27 at 13:18
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Many crafts in Iran was once American built, but their parts have been changed so largely through years that now you may hardly call them American built, or any old either. Example are F-5 fighters, or its improved versions, which are built completely in Iran but you may see and think it is some decades old, which are not. I doubt if the helicopter is any such aged either ... the form and model might appear to be so, but the inner beast (which may be improved compared to the original model) might be not ... However, that doesn't mean that any and every part is built completely in Iran and not bought from abroad, and there is where you may find a place for sanctions making hard to purchase the parts. I do not know if this is an issue about this particular copter or not, but M.J. Zarif, the Prime Minister of the previous government in Iran, blamed US to have parts in this accident (like many other accidents that has happened to civilians in Iran, or lack of drugs and etc.) due to applying such sanctions.

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