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Iran's solar car challenger waiting for plane ticket to the US

QAZVIN, Iran--It is not easy for an Iranian to visit America. With no U.S. embassy in Tehran since 1979, obtaining a visa usually requires two costly trips to Dubai or Turkey.

A group of Iranian students, however, have a far bigger problem — they want to send a car to the United States. Only then will they get on a plane.

The Havin-2 is no ordinary vehicle. Solar powered, its 4.5 meter carbon fiber chassis resembles a giant door. The four wheels that lurk beneath its sprawling white body are the only clue it is a car at all.

As entrants to the American Solar Challenge, a 2,735 kilometer road trip in July across seven U.S. states from Austin, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lot is at stake for the young Iranians.

But the sad reality is that the Havin-2 may never reach the start line.

“We are really worried about it,” says Mohammad Saadatmand, the mechanical leader of the team from Qazvin Azad Islamic University, west of Tehran.

“To think that we might not make it is almost too terrible to contemplate.”

The road block they face is more daunting than consular paperwork.

Standing in their path are the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and other world powers as punishment for a nuclear program that many believe masks an intention to develop an atomic bomb.

The restrictions make transporting the Havin-2 by air cargo a logistical nightmare.

'Researchers, not terrorists'

The Iranian team is confident it can hold its own against the mostly American field, which includes the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The question is whether they will get the chance.

“This car has made us crazy,” says Alireza Malmali, the team's electronics specialist who has now switched his attention to trying to find an air carrier.

Giving a tour at the team's spartan workshop, where the Havin-2 lurks under a tarpaulin, the prospect of being barred is writ large across his face.

“I wish governments across the world would accept we are researchers, not terrorists,” he says.

The cargo arms of Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa all refused to carry the Havin-2, citing fears of breaching sanctions.

Sanctions at Heart of Problems

Several other companies set impractical conditions for carriage.

A letter from the U.S. Treasury Department appears to confirm that the car does not require special authorization if is being used “in a public conference, performance, exhibition or similar event.”

The solar challenge organizers, however, were unable to navigate the regulations.

“It has been very difficult,” says Sue Eudaly, the event's team coordinator. “We went to a senator, who directed us to the State Department who then sent us to the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Ultimately, I guess we were not a high priority case.”

Last ditch negotiations with a Tehran-based carrier are now under way.

Even then, a delivery date no later than July 1, which the carrier is reluctant to guarantee, leaves less than two weeks for the Havin-2 to clear customs in time for the start of the race.

The costs of sending the team and the car to America mean only 12 of the 18 students involved, all of whom have obtained visas, will travel.

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Iranian students from the Qazvin Azad Islamic University, west of Tehran, assemble the solar powered Havin-2 vehicle for a test drive in Qazvin on June 2. (AFP)

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