They may not be dead, but the Airbus and Boeing (IW500/9) commercial aircraft deals struck this year with Iran likely will remain unresolved orders well into 2017 now that U.S. lawmakers have fired their first postelection salvo.
On Nov. 17, the House of Representatives voted 243-174 to pass a bill that, if enacted, would block the Treasury Department from issuing certain trade licenses to finance aircraft sales to Iran. The vote comes nine days after Donald Trump was elected the next U.S. president, following a campaign in which he pledged to scrap the current nuclear agreement with Iran that opened the way for the 200-plus aircraft deals.
The new bill applies equally to both Airbus and Boeing, according to a major sponsor, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). It further bars the U.S. Export-Import Bank from facilitating such deals, including indirectly. “The Islamic Republic has a history of using commercial aircraft to transport weapons, missiles, troops and cash to the Assad regime in Syria and its other terror proxies around the world,” Roskam’s aides say.
HOUSE BILL ON IRAN BUFFETS AIRCRAFT DEALS
House passes bill barring U.S. financing
Airbus, Boeing deals with Iran unresolved
Financing remains center of attention
Yet, the bill (H.R. 5711) does not stop or outright forbid commercial aircraft sales, it simply bars banks overseen by the U.S. from participating in such deals or the use of taxpayer funds to facilitate them. What is more, the measure is unlikely to move further in the lawmaking process until after Trump takes the Oval Office, as President Obama has promised to veto a related bill and Congress is too divided to override him.
So, proponents will have to reintroduce the bill in the new session of Congress that begins in January. Even then, Democrats, especially in the Senate, could fight it off successfully, as they have to date. They might also eventually find some Republican allies—as they did in the fight over reauthorizing Ex-Im—since both OEMs have extensive manufacturing and supply chain providers across the U.S. Still, the vote last week saw just eight House Democrats join 235 Republicans to pass the bill.
In January, Airbus was first to sign a preliminary agreement with Iran Air for up to 118 aircraft, including 21 A320ceos, 24 A320neos, 27 A330ceos, 18 A330-900s and 12 A380s. Boeing followed in June with a letter of agreement for more than 100 airliners, including about 70 single-aisle aircraft and an unspecified number of 747-8s.
While Chicago-based Boeing is obviously a U.S. company, Toulouse-based Airbus also needs U.S. Treasury licenses, as more than 10% of its commercial airplanes and components are supplied by American companies or manufactured in the U.S., subjecting it to U.S. sanctions. Airbus says it spends 42% of its commercial aircraft procurement resources in the U.S.
Treasury in September had granted Boeing an export license that covers 80 aircraft via direct sale and another 29 whose sale the OEM will help facilitate for leasing companies. At the time, it also granted Airbus approval for sale of just 17 aircraft, with licensing for the rest expected imminently. On Nov. 23—six days after the House vote—officials reportedly followed with licenses for up to 106 Airbus aircraft.
Nevertheless, financing remains central to the deals being completed, and the new bill makes the options clear. Iran can either pay in cash, all of the parties involved can find financing not subject to the long arm of U.S. law, or some combination of both.
Dubai Aerospace Enterprise reportedly is lined up to lease the first 18 Airbus aircraft to Iran Air, thus skirting U.S. restrictions, at least initially.
Boeing representatives have told Aviation Week they did not plan on seeking Ex-Im backing, and they made that clear to the Iranians. But Boeing has not discussed whether or where it will seek financing.
In turn, no one seems to be banking on the deals being finalized any time soon, and some analysts say they remain as far-fetched as ever.
“I’m not privy to the Iranian side of the equation, but comments from Airbus have suggested that financing for this deal is a must. So with no financing, we have no deal,” Vertical Research Partners defense analyst Robert Stallard tells Aviation Week. “I would agree with many in the industry that always described the Iranian deal as a long shot, but it would have helped Airbus and Boeing fill some delivery gaps for their most vulnerable models, like the 777 and the A380.”
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, echoes the doubts. “It was never all that likely to have happened as planned,” he says, pointing to the Cape Town Convention as another obstacle. The 2004 treaty establishes international standards for property rights of movable assets such as aircraft, and it explicitly provided a benchmark for aircraft lessors and other aviation dealers. Iran was not a signatory, limiting its attractiveness in the international aircraft market.
“It looks dead to me,” Aboulafia adds of the Airbus and Boeing deals. He expects Iran will return to its quieter, slower and untraditional means for acquiring commercial aircraft, as it has for the last three decades. As for the manufacturers, life goes on. “I don’t think there is much damage at all,” he tells Aviation Week. “It is just a lot of confusion.”
Sanford C. Bernstein analysts said as much in a Nov. 21 note to investor clients. “Trump has said he supports Boeing sales to Iran, but also said he would stop the Iran nuclear deal,” they say. “It is unclear how this will play out, but no one should have been modeling Iran sales as a sure thing in any case.”
Moody’s Investors Service Senior Vice President Russell Solomon tells Aviation Week he is less optimistic about a deal getting done now, but advises against writing it all off. “There is likely to be financing at some level—even if not for the full 200-plus aircraft initially targeted—just not from traditional sources [with U.S. branches],” he says. “And it is a much smaller universe of potential funding sources with Iran not being part of the Cape Town Convention.”
In September, Solomon issued a report that described the deals as marginally beneficial to industry. Iran affords large commercial aircraft manufacturers a prospective boost of up to 3% to future industry demand through the next decade, or about 400-500 jets for Iranian airlines, he reported.