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    Serbia stops refueling; only Budapest now left

    The daily Sharq reported Monday that Iran Air was last able to refuel in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 18. It didn’t say why the Serbs had cut Iran Air off. Serbia and Iran have been quite close for years, despite the fact that Serbs often complain about the Islamic threat.

    The Islamic Republic has suppressed news in Iran about Serbia’s treatment of Muslims living in the enclave of Kosovo, and Iran has refused to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. Iran is widely believed to defer to Serbia under urging from Moscow, which is very protective of the Serbs.

    However, the new Serbian government is eager to mend its fences with the West, as evidenced by its decision to send Ratko Mladic, accused of mass killings of Bosnian Muslims, to The Hague for trial. Mladic was extradited May 31, two weeks before Iran Air’s refueling in Belgrade ended.

    Fuel suppliers in Europe started cutting off supplies to Iranian airlines last summer and fall, apparently concerned about angry Americans and US sanctions. This year, Iran has only been able to get jet fuel in Geneva, Belgrade and Budapest, according to published reports in Europe.

    The Swiss government ceased refueling Iranian commercial planes in May, then Serbia halted supplies in June, leaving only Budapest, Hungary.

    The irony is that no sanctions—American or otherwise—are aimed at cutting off fuel for Iranian commercial aircraft. Suppliers seem to be following a pack mentality and halting supplies to Iranian planes for fear they might anger the Americans. The supplies sold to Iranian airlines are so small that the firms are not giving up any substantial business.

    Last summer the US Congress passed legislation providing for sanctions to be imposed on companies that sold Iran gasoline or other refined oil products. The theory was that Iran, which was importing one-third of its gasoline, would be crippled by such sanctions.

    But the Islamic Republic has been boosting gasoline output. While all the world’s major fuel suppliers halted sales to Iran, that had little impact as Iran was able to produce gasoline at its petrochemical plants and to import enough additional gasoline to fill all its needs.

    That US sanctions law, however, contained a very specific exemption for small sales of refined fuel, and that meant that supplies for Iranian commercial aircraft could continue, since those volumes fall well within the exemption.

    But the law took effect just weeks after the oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which made BP the most hated firm in America. BP reportedly feared that news stories about its selling jet fuel to Iran Air would bring it into further disrepute, so it halted all such sales. That prompted other firms servicing Iran Air to look at their contracts. And, one-by-one, they severed their ties to Iran Air, including even Total of France and OMV of Austria, which have been publicly disdainful of American sanctions.

    Earlier this year, Iran announced that it was retaliating by denying fuel to aircraft from the European countries that had shut off supplies. But European countries were not shutting off supplies; it was the decision of private companies to do so. The first state to take such an action was Switzerland; its airport fuel supply service is a government agency. The supplier in Belgrade was not immediately identified.

    It isn’t clear if Iran has actually shut of fuel sales to all European aircraft. Sales to British Midlands, a small UK airline, were stopped even before Iran announced the retaliation. But no other airline has confirmed any supply shutoff.

    Iranian officials have charged that the European shutoff is illegal, a violation of international agreements and a threat to flight safety. But the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) says there is no requirement to sell fuel. As for flight safety, a pilot would be guilty if he took off with insufficient fuel to reach his next destination. An airport would be guilty only if it required an aircraft to take off with insufficient fuel.

    Iranian aircraft in Europe have been flying to, say, Paris, with enough extra fuel on board to fly a second leg to, say, Belgrade, where fuel for the final leg to Tehran is bought. This extra stop adds to Iran Air’s costs and means passengers face about 90 extra minutes before reaching Tehran.

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