TEHRAN // Iran has stopped fully refuelling British Midland Airways (BMI) flights at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport in retaliation for the refusal of western oil companies to refuel Iranian flag carriers at several European airports, including London's Heathrow.
BMI flights from Heathrow to Tehran will make an intermediate landing en route, which could add up to 90 minutes to the scheduled journey time "due to difficulties in uplifting fuel at Tehran", the airline's website said yesterday.
BMI passengers flying from London to Tehran this week said their flights stopped for fuel in Baku, Azerbaijan. The airline operates daily flights between London and Tehran. The flights are usually packed with passengers heading to the UK or transiting via London to Canada and the United States.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said on Tuesday that Iran would take additional countermeasures if some European airports continued refusing to refuel Iranian flag carriers. He did not identify the airports and gave no indications what those measures might be.
"We have given the necessary warnings and if the current situation is not corrected in some European capitals, they will be faced by a reciprocal action from Iran," Fars news agency quoted Mr Mottaki as saying.
Royal Dutch Shell and BP decided in July not to renew their fuel supply contracts with Iran's flag carriers at various airports across the world, including some in Germany, Britain and the UAE.
Analysts and tourism experts say the increased costs imposed by the need for refuelling stops could make international flights by Iranian carriers uneconomical, which could eventually ground a large number of state-owned Iran Air and privately owned Mahan Air planes that fly to Europe and other countries.
"Continuation of the fuel situation will double the costs for Iranian airlines," Mohammad Hassan Kermani, the chairman of Iran's Travel Agents Union, was quoted by Tinn News as saying last week.
"The ban on providing fuel to Iranian flag carriers will continue with the expansion of the scope of sanctions against Iran," he predicted.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said this month that refusal to refuel Iranian passenger planes exceeded the economic sanctions called for by the United Nations over Tehran's nuclear programme. Iran has faced four rounds of sanctions.
While there is no evidence that the United States is orchestrating a ban on fuelling Iranian civilian airliners, the fuel dispute must be seen against the background of measures by Washington aimed at limiting Iran's financial resources and room to manoeuvre politically, a political analyst in Tehran said. "The US approach towards Iran is a war of attrition. They want to maximise financial, economic and industrial restrictions on Iran in various ways as they prefer to use the soft option rather than military confrontation unless Iran takes the first step towards confrontation. Grounding Iran's international flights and shipping companies is one of the measures they are taking in such a war of attrition," the analyst, who spoke on condition anonymity, said.
While Iran says its jet-fuel production is more than enough to support domestic flights, it heavily relies on international oil companies for fuelling its international flights.
If supplier companies such as Total, which are still providing fuel for Iranian planes, refuse to renew their current contracts, which are set to expire within a couple of months, Iran's next option is to ask Turkey to supply fuel for its carriers flying international routes.
But the political analyst said even that option may close if the US succeeds in pressuring Turkey to refuse the deal, just as it persuaded Ankara from selling petrol to Iran.
Among the other airlines that fly to Tehran are KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Turkish Airlines and China Southern Airlines. There was no word from them as to whether their fuel supply has been affected.