Should US’s 1995 sanctions on the Iranian aviation sector be considered ethically acceptable?

Group 1


In 1995, the USA banned the sale of spare parts and maintenance to Iran’s commercial aircraft, which led to concern over Iranian public safety [1]. The sanctions (including industry giants Boeing and Airbus) were designed to exert political and economic pressure on the ruling government; but they have been linked to a series of aviation catastrophes that have killed hundreds of Iran’s civilians [2]. The sanctions continue to affect Iran’s fleet to this day. What consequences were expected when these sanctions were placed? When a country’s whole aviation sector mostly depends on just two companies, should sanctions like these be ethically acceptable?

The case against

A utilitarian ethics standpoint argues that since these sanctions affected large numbers of civilians and achieved little of the desired effect of putting political pressure on the Iranian government, they were highly unethical [3]. In the 25 years following 1995, Iran’s aviation suffered 17 plane crashes with a total of over 1,500 casualties [1]. At least 239 deaths aboard 3 aviation catastrophes have been directly linked to aircraft failure from improper maintenance [3].

Deontology ethics also condemns these sanctions as Americans wouldn’t like to fly on under maintained aircraft themselves, and thus they shouldn’t make other countries deal with these conditions based on the principle of reciprocity. The term “rights” can be defined as “reasonable claims that individuals and groups can make on other individuals or on society” [4]. A rights-based ethics implies that ethical behavior must uphold people’s rights, just like civil rights in a democracy. Safeguarding the flight safety of civil airliners is a fundamental people’s right, and the U.S. sanctions violate the rights of Iranian airline customers. Despite an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) statement urging to lift the ban in 2007, claiming that “political differences must not be placed over human rights” [1], 25 years of sanctions continues to toll Iran’s people and aviation to this day. The USA has also received criticism over the sanctions on other fronts. Environmental ethics oppose them as they have unnecessarily increased

Iranian aviation’s fuel consumption by 1.5 times over the international standard, consuming over 5 million liters of fuel per day [2]. Iran’s now obsolete fleet was serviced by stripping down half of the planes for spare parts or by sourcing spares through the black market at over 7 times markup [5]. By doing this, only half of the fleet saw the end of its service life, meaning the other half of it left part of its manufacturing footprint “in vain” [6]. The sanctions have caused, and continue to cause, an unnecessary cumulative increase in emissions of Iran’s aviation.

Based on virtue ethics, it is a virtue to help people whose aircraft and pilot training programmes require support for safety enhancement. It would be unethical if sanctions did not allow aircraft manufacturers to provide help to Iranian aviation companies or institutions. Negligence and inconsideration are not virtues and therefore these sanctions were unethical under virtue ethics.

Exploiting a country’s dependence on a hegemonic aircraft manufacturer defies autonomy ethics as it goes against the notion that everyone should “have the right to take decisions that apply to themselves”. The sanctions deprived Iran’s aviation of autonomy and therefore were unethical. Whereas polarizing international relations, including sanctioning other country’s airliners for helping Iran source replacement parts [6], goes against care ethics as US international relations were heavily strained. To the point that in 2018 the European committee declared US sanctions null and void in Europe and resumed aviation cooperation with Iran [1].

The case for

By utilitarianism definitions, America’s approach was reasonable for regional security and stability in Iran. Various acts of terrorism supported by Iran are a daily source of worry and fear for ordinary people in the region[8]. Iran has become one of the world’s most active sponsors of terrorism since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 [7].The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and its support for what it considers terrorist groups. The sanctions placed on the field of aircraft technology successfully reduced the growth of Iran’s aviation industry, reducing flights and passengers, and thus slowing its economic development [7]. The measure forced the Iranian government to make concessions for the sake of its economic development, abandon further research into its nuclear technology program and allay fears in the United States that Iran might possess a nuclear weapon of a certain level [7]. For the benefit of global stability and safety, utilitarianism ethics deems the sanctions ethical. Iran’s aviation industry is in the habit of using aircraft alternately for civilian passenger flights and military-related activities [8]. A business which is potentially support terrorism is not ethical and should be prevented from operating according to deontology ethics. The United States was concerned about Iran’s continued ability to deploy F-14s, therefore shredded the entire fleet in 2007 to ensure that no parts were being smuggled into Iran from the United States [9]. Dozens of violent organizations have been armed, financed, organized and supported by Iran over the years [10]. This involvement in different conflicts resulted in deaths and suffering of over 400 people across the international community [11].

From a virtue ethics perspective, to contain future risks and prevent factors such as nuclear proliferation and regional instability, stopping Iran in time would benefit a greater number of people. Iran’s intentions regarding its nuclear program and material assistance to militant groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Palestinian Hamas organization and Hezbollah in Lebanon have led the United States to consider Iran a significant threat to national security interests [2].  This could also lead to other countries in the region wanting to have nuclear weapons; the political balance in the Middle East would be upset, allowing nuclear weapons to become more widespread [12]. Therefore, according to virtue ethics, the United States acted to protect its own people and their future. The restrictions imposed on Iran during the conflict were in fact, economically punitive measures punishing Iran’s breaking of international obligations, treaties, and agreements.

Initial Decision

US’s 1995 sanctions and their consequences on Iran were unethical.



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L. Chonko, ‘Ethical Theories’. University of Texas at Arlington. Accessed: Mar. 22, 2022. [Online]. Available:


‘Insight – “State-of-the-art” subterfuge: how Iran kept flying under sanctions’, Reuters, Jan. 31, 2016. Accessed: Mar. 22, 2022. [Online]. Available:


F. A. Danışmanlık ve Yazılım, ‘The Sanctions on Iran’s Civil Aviation’, İRAM Center | Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara. (accessed Mar. 22, 2022).


A. Ng, “These 6 charts show how sanctions are crushing Iran’s economy”, 2021. [Online]. Available:

 [Accessed: 21- Mar- 2022].


 Ruby, Charles L. “The definition of terrorism.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP) (2002).


P. Iddon, “Iran air disasters: Are US sanctions endangering passengers?”,, 2020. [Online]. Available:


D. Byman, “Iran, Terrorism, and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Studies in conflict and terrorism, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 169–181, 2008, doi: 10.1080/10576100701878424


Berkowitz, Jeremy M. “Delegating terror: Principal–agent based decision making in state sponsorship of terrorism.” International interactions 44.4 (2018): 709-748.


Katzman, Kenneth. Iran: US concerns and policy responses. DIANE Publishing, 2010.

7 thoughts on “Should US’s 1995 sanctions on the Iranian aviation sector be considered ethically acceptable?

  1. I think this topic is very worth discussing. U.S. sanctions against Iran on aviation are doing more harm than good. Aviation sanctions against Iran cannot be confused with fighting terrorism in Iran. Since the United States wants to fight terrorism, it should thoroughly implement specific counter-terrorism measures, instead of weakening Iran’s economic and military strength in the name of fighting terrorism. This practice is very unethical.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. As the world’s superpower, the US has not only withheld humanitarian aid from Iran but has also sanctioned Iranian aviation, leading to concerns about public safety. But from another moral and ethical point of view, the US did curb the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and large-scale attacks by terrorist groups. It is the innocent people who are hurt in the political conflict between the US and Iran.

  3. I completely agree! As the world’s most powerful country, the United States is always looking for ways to exert control over everything. The sanction is more of a strategy to control the resources. It’s obviously selfish behaviour disguised by a plausible excuse. Your points of view are both critical and well-founded; I appreciate it!

  4. This article raises a very interesting topic. If the US sanctions against Iran were motivated by an anti-terrorist perspective that would indeed be morally acceptable and it would benefit people around the world. But the purpose of the sanctions may not be pure and not entirely morally acceptable. This is one of the more controversial points.

  5. This is an interesting article.
    The fact that Iran is probably one of the most active supporters of terrorism should receive the imposition of sanctions. But the vast majority of people affected are ordinary citizens, so I don’t think it makes sense for the US to do this.

  6. I really enjoyed this article. The United States has imposed a number of sanctions on Iran since 1979 to achieve its political objectives. This article presents an ethical perspective on the unacceptable and serious consequences of the US sanctions on the Iranian people. It is clear that Iran, where the aircraft industry is monopolized by foreign companies, is in serious trouble. I personally also strongly agree with the article that the US sanctions are unethical.

  7. Feedback
    1. Clarity of problem/dilemma
    The problem is clearly stated “Is the use of economic sanctions in the aviation sector ethical?” with a good point made for each side of the dilemma.

    2. Use of ethical theories in the For Case
    You made good use of the ethical theories. You could also have considered care ethics, in that by applying sanctions the US was enhancing the relationship between it and its allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia.

    3. Use of Ethical theories in the Against case
    Good effective use of ethical theories to support the case against. You included additional theories too!

    4. Advice on Assignment Two
    a. Identifying stakeholders
    b. Courses of action
    There are a number of obvious stakeholders, such as those applying sanctions, those affected by the sanctions (such as Iranian passengers and air-crew), and the companies. There is also an indirect stakeholder that you mentioned obliquely.
    With regards to Courses for Action, it’ll be difficult to look for a win-win, but the Black/White course seems obvious.

    5. Personal remarks
    I enjoyed reading this article. Both sides seemed balanced, particularly the mention that Iran will sometimes use its commercial aircraft for military purposes.

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