Embarrassment for Berlin: Iranian Airline Buys Chancellor Merkel's Retired Jet
A recent purchase by an Iranian airline could prove embarrassing for Berlin. The Theodor Heuss, once an official government jet and used to ferry several different chancellors on trips abroad, now belongs to Mahan Air -- despite German support for greater sanctions against Tehran.
On its website, Iranian airline Mahan Air ("The Spirit of Excellence") counts five Boeing 747s and 27 Airbus aircraft among its fleet. The fact that sanctions against the country make maintenance of the jets extraordinarily difficult, however, is not addressed.
Still, Mahan Air recently managed to enlarge its fleet through the purchase of an Airbus 310-304, delivered to Tehran from Kiev on Nov. 18. Far from an ordinary acquisition, however, the twin-engine plane's history is likely to prove embarrassing for the German government. The plane, after all, served until recently as an official government jet for German VIPs -- including chancellors, foreign ministers and other cabinet members.
Dubbed Theodor Heuss after the first West German president, the jet is outfitted with posh details that include a sleeping cabin, shower and comfortable leather sofas. And its delivery to Tehran would appear to fly in the face of German diplomacy. Berlin has recently called for tighter sanctions against Iran following the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent report indicating its concern that Tehran is working towards the creation of an atomic weapon.
Eastern European Middleman
The retired government jet ended up in Tehran following a rather bizarre path. Built in 1989, it was originally used by the former East German airline Interflug, before being taken over by the newly reunited Germany and modernized. During its ensuing years of service, it safely ferried chancellors Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel around the world. It made its final flight in the service of the German government last June and was replaced by a more modern Airbus A340.
Following its decommissioning, the Federal Disposal Sales and Marketing Agency (VEBEG) sold the aircraft to a Ukrainian investor group in late June for 3.1 million. A German military spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE that before its sale, the plane was painted a neutral color, making it a "totally normal airplane" -- albeit one with a rather singular history.
The Ukrainian investor then secretly sold the VIP jet to Mahan Air. Industry insiders suggest that the group may have acted as a straw man for the Iranian government from the beginning. According to Christofer Witt, editor of the magazine Skyliner Aviation News and More, a number of Lufthansa planes have been sold to Ukrainian investors in the past, only to later end up in Iran.
Meanwhile, the US has accused Mahan Air of secretly transporting weapons and members of the Iranian Republican Guard, freezing its assets after uncovering the alleged plot by the country to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington.
kla -- with reporting by Björn Hengst, Matthias Gebauer and Gerald Traufetter
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