TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Air France resumed flights to Iran Sunday after last year's landmark deal to curb Iranian nuclear activities, as part of larger French and European efforts to rebuild trade ties long frozen by sanctions.
The direct flight from Paris to Tehran was the first since 2008. French Transport Minister Alain Vidalies and a business leaders' delegation were on board flight AF 378 that took off from Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport after noon.
Air France CEO Frederic Gagey was optimistic the line would prove profitable. "It's a touristic destination which I believe is going to become very popular, very attractive," he said. Air France is also counting on Paris to become a hub for American and other tourists headed to Tehran.
Asghar Fakhrieh Kashan, Iran's deputy transport minister, welcomed the resumption of the flight. "The current situation has fortunately given the opportunity to both countries to restore their relations to their normal former state. It interestingly seems that the Islamic Republic's aviation sector has been dominated by France and French industries," he said.
The resumption of flights will restore a longstanding aviation link between the two countries. The airline operated flights to Tehran from 1946 until October 2008, when they were suspended amid U.N. and EU sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
The plans have sparked debate within the airline, with some female crew members objecting to having to cover their hair while in Iran, in line with Iranian law. Air France said earlier this month it would allow female pilots and cabin crew to opt out of assigned Tehran flights if they object to covering their hair.
"Tolerance and respect for the cultures and customs in the countries served by the airline are part of the fundamental values of Air France and its staff," it said.
French relations with Iran are nothing if not complex. Iran is indebted to France for hosting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who fathered the Islamic revolution from his rental home outside Paris, toppling the Pahlavi dynasty and upsetting the world order.
The street where the French Embassy in Tehran sits is now named rue Neauphle-le-Château, the French town where Khomeini lived and sent messages to his countrymen before returning home to become the Islamic Republic's supreme leader.
But France was also the last holdout in the nuclear negotiations that led to the lifting of economic sanctions and will give Tehran a windfall in cash.
French president Francois Hollande welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Paris in January, hailing the visit as "a new chapter of our relationship." The two countries signed some 20 deals during the visit, including one valued at $25 billion for Iran Air to buy 118 aircraft from Airbus.
For Iranians, some of whom complain that the nuclear deal has not yet produced visible benefits, the resumption of European flights from Tehran's Imam Khomenei International Airport is one tangible change. Oil-rich Iran is hoping to diversify its economy and boost growth by increasing the number of western tourists and investors visiting the country.
Air France will fly to Iran three times a week. German carrier Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines also run several flights a week connecting Iran and Europe. British Airways plans to resume operations to Iran starting this summer.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed reporting.