Iran appears determined to not only maintain its enormous fleet of hundreds of Bell helicopters in the wake of the ongoing U.S. arms embargo against it, but also to make indigenous and unauthorized copies of them. In 2006, Bell filed suit against Iran for making unauthorized knock-offs of several models including 206s and 205s.
Since the 1990s, Iran has reverse-engineered parts, assemblies and in some cases, whole aircraft, including the Bell 205, 206 and 214. The work is being done by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing (HESA) and Iran Helicopter Support and Renewal (Panha). The knock-offs are being marketed under the names Shahed 276 and 278, and Shabaviz 275 and 2061 and Panha 2091, a remanufactured AH-1J Cobra. A light gunship derived from the Bell 206, the Shahed 285, was unveiled last year.
Many of these helicopters use components manufactured in Iran and from a variety of Chinese and Russian sources. To the naked eye the Iranian copies are virtually indistinguishable from the Bell originals.
Bell’s relationship with Iran is long and complex. During the 1970s, Iran’s then-leader, Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, developed a serious taste for Western aircraft, including Bells, and soon built the largest fleet of military helicopters in the Middle East, including Huey-class 205 and 214s, and purchased more than 200 AH-1J Sea Cobra gun ships.
But the Shah wanted to do more than buy Bells; he wanted to build them. While continuing to import hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Bells, the Shah’s government inked a deal with Bell to pay half the development costs of a new variant of the 214A, a stretched and more powerful version labeled the 214ST, to be produced in Iran. Under the deal, Bell built a large aircraft factory in Iran. A non-conforming prototype flew in Iran in 1977. After the Shah abdicated in 1979, Bell moved to develop the 214ST on its own.
Meanwhile, the new Iranian regime turned to smuggling and reverse-engineering to keep its Bells in the air. Overall, during the last 30 years, Iran has grown into a major arms producer and exporter, selling arms and military equipment to more than 57 countries. Iran’s home-grown “Bell” parts and helicopters were initially manufactured largely for domestic consumption. However, in 2002 it began marketing the Shahed 276 JetRanger knock-off to paying customers, and Bell took what little recourse it could, requesting the Government of Iran and its entities to cease the sale of unauthorized copies of Bells and, when that failed, filing suit in U.S. District Court for trademark and patent violations in 2006. That case wound down last year. “The case has been submitted to the court for assessment of damages, and we’re waiting for a decision,” said Bell spokesman Jim McKenna.
However, Iran apparently is not waiting to acquire more Bell technology via unapproved methods. On March 14, 2009, U.S. federal agents arrested Hossein Ali Khoshnevisrad, an Iranian citizen, and charged him with attempting to smuggle 17 Rolls-Royce 250 turboshaft engines, the same kind that power the Bell 206, into Iran. Federal agents also are investigating a plot to smuggle Bell 412s into Iran via Mexico and Italy. One of those helicopters was equipped with night-vision goggles.