Iran should still be allowed to buy US jets, despite protests, supporting nearly 100,000 American jobs

President Trump has repeatedly said that creating American jobs is one of his top priorities. Yet his administration is considering blocking a $20 billion sale of 110 American-made passenger jets by Boeing to Iranian airlines, even though the sale would create or support nearly 100,000 American jobs.

There are good arguments for canceling the jet sale, especially in the wake of the large anti-government protests rocking Iran in recent days. But blocking the sale by Boeing would be a mistake, causing far more harm to American workers and to our nation’s economy than to Iran.

Squandering a $20 billion job-creating deal that would help nearly 100,000 American workers and their families would do far more harm than good.

Boeing is set to sell 80 narrow-body jet airliners and 30 wide-body twin-engine jet airliners to two Iranian airlines. The U.S. company is allowed to do this under the terms of the agreement that lifted international economic sanctions on Iran in return for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development.

The Boeing sale is a direct answer to President Trump’s own complaints during the presidential campaign about American companies not getting enough access to the Iranian market in the wake of the nuclear agreement.

“Everybody’s involved now with Iran selling them stuff,” candidate Trump complained in September 2015. “We’re probably (going to) be the only ones that won’t be selling them anything, but that’s all gone now.”

Yet now the Trump administration is considering blocking the $20 billion jet sale to Iran because officials are concerned Iran might use the planes to fly troops, arms and equipment to Syria to fight in support of dictator Bashar Assad, or to other areas where conflicts are raging. This isn’t an unreasonable concern. Iranian airlines have been sanctioned in the past for exactly this behavior.

And given the recent protests, it might seem like a strange time to permit a sale that could be seen as benefiting the Iranian regime.

The demonstrations taking place across Iran since last week have naturally drawn support from Americans, in light of Iran’s hostility to America and Israel; aid to terrorists and bad actors, like    Assad; and numerous violations of the human rights of the Iranian people.

Some opponents of the Iranian government suggest that the U.S. should intensify economic pressure on Iran – both to show support for the protests and to help topple the Iranian regime.

But the jet sale –which needs the approval of the U.S. Treasury Department – is unlikely to strengthen the Iranian government. A significant number of the Boeing jets aren’t scheduled to be delivered until 2022, which would do little to bolster the Iranian regime in this moment of weakness.

And as the anti-governments street protests these past few days have shown, the Iranian government already has less of a grip on power than many analysts had believed.

Moreover, despite all the concerns about selling planes to Iran, there are better reasons to let the Boeing sale go through.

First, the sale would be good for American workers. This is likely why President Trump himself has never spoken out against the Boeing deal, even as others in his administration and Congress work to undermine it.

President Trump recently hosted executives from Boeing at the White House for a signing of a "certificate of purchase" with Singapore Airlines. The president told reporters the Singapore deal would support “about 70,000 jobs.” The potential sale to Iran would be much bigger and create even more jobs.

Second, the sale of Boeing jets to Iranian airlines would be good for the American aerospace industry. In 2016 Boeing’s revenues were down because of the cheap price of oil and an influx of refurbished planes.

While 2017 was a better year for Boeing, the potential sale to Iran is important. It represents 10 percent of Boeing’s annual production and is bigger than any identified order in 2017. Killing the sale would hurt Boeing and related American suppliers, like jet engine producers and landing gear manufacturers.

But what about the long-term national security concerns regarding selling Iran these planes? It might be reasonable to set aside all the benefits to American workers and the aerospace industry if denying Iran the Boeing jets would end Tehran’s transportation of illicit material to its proxies.

But it won’t.

If it doesn’t buy planes from Boeing, Iran will simply buy new planes from non-American manufacturers or continue using its existing fleet. It has no trouble arming its proxies now. Stopping this sale won’t make much difference.

Additionally, Boeing’s loss would be China and Russia’s gain. Boeing is facing increasing competition from foreign competitors. Although Boeing dominates the commercial jetliner market – with Airbus just behind it and Bombardier as a distant third – China and Russia are intent on seizing a dominant position in the market.

China and Russia recently announced a joint venture and are in partnership talks with Bombardier. Without help, it might take a decade or more for a Chinese-Russian airliner to make it into commercial service. But an alliance with Bombardier would radically speed up the process.

Killing the Boeing sale to Iran could provide the Chinese and Russians with the crucial opening they need to leap ahead, handing them an ideal first market and maximizing the likelihood that Bombardier joins in.

Instead of blocking the Boeing jet sale to Iran, the Trump administration should allow the sale to go forward, while making it contingent on Iran agreeing to regular inspections to ensure the planes are being used properly. This kind of end-use monitoring is common for the sale of a wide range of American equipment that could be used for military purposes.

And if the Trump administration is serious about stopping Iran from arming its proxies there are other meaningful steps it should take that won’t cost American jobs or hurt American manufacturing.

As a start, the administration should press Iran’s neighbors – especially Iraq – to inspect Iranian flights before granting access to their airspace. This is an approach that would stop any Iranian plane – old or new – from transporting illegal goods.

Additionally, Iran moves a significant number of illicit arms by ships. The U.S. should expand America’s naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and increase our monitoring of Port Sudan to prevent Iranian illegal shipments from reaching its proxies.

The Trump administration is right to worry about Iran. But squandering a $20 billion job-creating deal that would help nearly 100,000 American workers and their families would do far more harm than good. It would put America last, not first. 

YJ Fischer served at the State Department from 2012-2016, including as the assistant coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation. She was one of the writers of the 2016 Democratic Party platform and served on the Clinton-Kaine Transition Team.