LONDON— A year ago, an Iran Air pilot was hailed as a hero after he safely landed a passenger plane whose front landing gear had failed to open. The captain started a campaign against international sanctions, which he says are making civil aircraft in Iran unsafe. But now he has been forced to retire, for apparently embarrassing the government.
Cellphone footage posted on the Internet shows Iran Air Flight 742 from Moscow approaching Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport on October 18th last year.
The front landing gear of the 40-year-old Boeing has failed to open. On board are 113 passengers and crew.
The captain, Houshang Shahbazi, pulls off an extraordinarily smooth landing, keeping the nose up until the last seconds. No one is injured.
Shahbazi's heroic actions got him an audience with government ministers. He was paraded on TV talk shows.
"Unfortunately sanctions imposed by Western countries on civilian airlines in Iran have caused a considerable number of plane crashes and led to the deaths of hundreds of passengers," said Shahbazi.
Shahbazi said that the landing gear failed because of low hydraulic pressure - caused by wear and tear to aging parts.
"It is not fair for ordinary people to become victims of political tension between governments, and lose their lives to such issues," Shahbazi added. "I ask you, who are the main decision makers and lawmakers of the world, to reconsider this type of sanction placed on Iran."
That appeal appears to have angered the Iranian government.
On his Facebook page, Shahbazi says he has now been forced to retire nine years early after "refusing to make a pledge not to engage in any social activity."
The Iranian government has offered no explanation.
But Shahbazi's campaign has highlighted the fact that sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program are starting to bite hard - something the Iranian government wants to hide, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"There is pretty much a blanket ban on all U.S. trade with Iran and civilian aircraft parts don't fall into the humanitarian exemption from this," Fitzpatrick noted. "I think it's very unfortunate that the Iranian people are really suffering under the sanctions. And there is a way out. I wish the Iranian government would see that way and take it."
U.S. and European Union officials say the sanctions are vital to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program. Tehran denies claims that it is trying to build an atomic bomb.
"Iran is finding it very difficult to obtain parts and ingredients for its missile program and for some elements of its nuclear program," added Fitzpatrick. "The nuclear program continues to expand, but not at the pace that Iran had planned. The second way that sanctions have worked is that they have brought Iran to the negotiating table."
Unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough, aviation experts say Iran will have continue maintaining its aging fleet of aircraft using parts bought on the black market.