The Bush administration has approved an expedited sale to Iran of engine spare parts for Airbus jetliners operated by the country's national airline, Iran Air. Officials say the decision is strictly safety-related.
U.S. sanctions against Iran bar most kinds of trade with Tehran. But the Bush administration is making an exception in the case of the engine spare parts, which are being provided on an expedited basis because of a recent safety warning by the U.S. Federal Aviation administration.
The aviation agency recommended the immediate overhaul of the engines for the European Airbus planes, which were supplied by the U.S. industrial combine General Electric.
The administration notified Congress of the decision two weeks ago, but announcement of the move by the State Department did not come until late Tuesday.
In talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the decision is purely a matter of civil aviation safety and not connected with the difficult U.S.-Iranian political relationship.
He said that absent the repairs, the engine issue could have posed a significant threat to the safe operation of the jetliners and that was something the United States wanted to avoid if at all possible.
"It is the assessment of the experts, the companies, that this was something that was needed, and the United States certainly was not going to be in the position of threatening civil aviation, safety for the Iranian people," he said.
A written statement by the State Department said the engine repairs for the Iran Air planes would be performed in third countries, and that no U.S. exports would go directly to Iran.
It reiterated what it said were grave U.S. concerns about Iranian government activities, including its pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism.
It said the spare parts decision was consistent with a U.S. commitment to support the humanitarian interests of Iranians and to use sanctions to, quote, "Target the regime, not the Iranian people".
Iran has a number of U.S.-made civilian airliners dating back to before the country's 1979 Islamic revolution that have been largely grounded because of spare-parts shortages.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration offered to provide various types of aircraft spare parts, and to end U.S. opposition to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization, in a move to bolster the European nuclear initiative with Tehran.
But Iran has spurned the so-called carrots and sticks offer that it halt uranium enrichment and return to nuclear talks with the Europeans, and it is now facing possible sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.