The Shoot Down of Iran Air Flight 655
In a daily press briefing on July 2, 2008, the following set of questions and answers took place between an unidentified reporter and Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack :
QUESTION: Tomorrow marks the 20 years since the U.S. Navy warship Vincennes gunned down the IR655 civilian airliner, killing all 300 people on board, 71 of whom were children. And while the United States Government settled the incident in the International Court of Justice in 1996 at $61.1 million in compensation to the families, they, till this day, refuse to apologize –
MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: – as requested by the Iranian Government. And actually, officials in the Iranian Government said today that they’re planning on a commemoration tomorrow and it would, you know, show a sign of diplomatic reconciliation if the United States apologized for this incident.
MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Do you think it sends a positive message if, on the 20th anniversary of this incident, the United States Government apologized for (inaudible)?
MR. MCCORMACK: You know, to be honest with you, I’ll have to look back and see the history of what we have said about this – about the issue. I honestly don’t know. Look, nobody wants to see – everybody mourns innocent life lost. But in terms of our official U.S. Government response to it, I can’t – I have to confess to you, I don’t know the history of it. I’d be happy to post you an answer over to your question.
QUESTION: Well, do you think it show – do you think it would show a positive message as – in the midst of all this war talk –
MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, you know, you’ve asked the question. I’ve been trying to be – I’ve tried to be very up front with you. I don’t know the history. There’s obviously a long history to this issue. Let me understand the history to that issue before I provide you a response.
Mm-hmm. Could this be true? Could the spokesman for the State Department not know anything about the role that the US played in the Iran-Iraq war in general and Iranian Air Flight 655 in particular? Is it possible that the entire US Department of State is ignorant of that history? Is it conceivable that the current US policy towards Iran is being made by a host of ignoramuses? This is, indeed, a frightening prospect. At a time when the world is continuously rattled by the prospect of a US-Israeli attack on Iran and the resulting uncertainty in the oil market, escalating energy prices, possibility of a worldwide economic stagnation and spiraling inflation, it is terrifying to think that those who are beating the war drums are suffering from historical amnesia. The frightening prospect is not helped at all by the correction that appeared on the website of the US Department of State shortly after the above set of questions and answers took place. The correction read :
Iran Air Flight 655 (Taken Question)
Question: Does the State Department have anything to say on the 20th anniversary of the accidental downing of an Iran Air flight?
Answer: The accidental shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was a terrible human tragedy, and U.S. officials at the time expressed our deep regret over the tragic loss of life. We would certainly renew our expression of sympathy and condolences to the families of the deceased who perished in the tragedy.
The “terrible human tragedy” was not exactly “accidental,” at least not from the perspective of many Iranians. Nor did the United States “at the time” express its “deep regret over the tragic loss of life.” Since even after some research the US policy makers could not get their facts staright, it might be helpful to refresh their memories about Iran Air Flight 655.
The shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes marked the end of an eight war between Iran and Iraq, a war that in all probability started with the help of the US government and was certainly prolonged by the US and Israel as part of the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq. As I have explained elsewhere, in the eight year war the Reagan Administration tried to prevent Iran from winning the war against Saddam Hussein by providing him with intelligence, extension of credit and, indirectly, weapons. The US also established full diplomatic relations with Hussein’s government, lifted trade sanctions against Iraq, and imposed economic sanctions against Iran. In addition, the US closed its eyes to the use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the war, and, indeed, supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical compounds that had multiple uses, including making poison gas.
In 1984 the US policy of helping Saddam Hussein in the war took on a new dimension. The United States started to escort the tankers carrying Iraq’s and its allies’ oil, particularly those of Kuwait, safely through the Persian Gulf but allowed Iraq to hit at will tankers carrying Iranian oil. Soon afterwards, the US also offered to re-flag Iraqi allies’ tankers. This situation continued until early 1986, when Iranian forces started to score military victories by capturing the Iraqi Faw peninsula. Iraq increased the intensity of its tanker war on Iran and Iran retaliated. Kuwait asked the UN Security Council in late 1986 for protection of its tankers in the Gulf. Shortly afterwards, the US started to re-flag Kuwaiti tankers with the American flag. This was the beginning of the US directly entering an undeclared war against Iran at the behest of Saddam Hussein.
In the undeclared war that followed the US started to attack Iranian ships. For example, The Washington Post reported on September 23, 1987, that two days earlier American helicopters had attacked an Iranian vessel on the pretext that it was laying mines. As a result of the attack, the report went on to say, a number of Iranian sailors were killed, injured, or missing. A day after the attack, according to the same report, US Navy commandos boarded and captured the Iranian ship, and then fired warning shots at an Iranian hovercraft that came toward the disabled vessel. A few days later, the US Navy blew up and sank the ship (Sunday Mail, September 27, 1987). The US actions were viewed not only by Iran but also by the US Congress as something akin to declaration of war against Iran by the Reagan Administration. On September 25, 1987, the COURIER-MAIL reported that the “Iranian President, Mr Khamenei, said yesterday he feared United States actions in the Persian Gulf would lead to an American invasion of his country.” The report further quoted Khamenei as saying that the “presence of the US in the Gulf is a sign of war. . . . All these battleships and the great armada there are not for defence, they are for invasion.” On September 23, 1987, The Washington Post reported that the US Congress had asked “for constraints on U.S. tanker-escort operations” and that some were considering invoking the “1973 War Powers Resolution,” which requires congressional approval for sustained US combat operations.
Engaging Iran at the behest of Saddam Hussein continued throughout the rest of 1987 and 1988. For example, on October 9, 1987, the Guardian reported the sinking of three Iranian gunboats by the US on the pretext that they had “hostile intent,” and on April 19, 1988, The Washington Post reported the sinking or crippling of six more Iranian ships by the US. Also in this period the US started to attack Iranian oil platforms. For example, according to the COURIER-MAIL of October 21, 1987, the US attacked two Iranian oil platforms two days earlier “in response to that country’s missile attacks on tankers flying the US flag.” According to the same source, “Mr Reagan was asked if the attack meant the two nations were at war”, and he responded by saying “No, we’re not going to have a war with Iran, they’re not that stupid.” Similarly, the Journal of Commerce reported on April 19, 1988 that a day earlier the US Navy destroyed two offshore Iranian oil platforms. In this same period (1987–8) the US also started to engage the Iranian air force. For example, according to the Financial Times of September 23, 1987, on August 8 of the same year “a carrier-borne F-14 Tomcat fighter unleashed two missiles at an Iranian jet spotted on its radar which had flown too close for comfort to an unarmed US surveillance aircraft.” Similarly, the Journal of Commerce reported on April 19, 1988, that a “U.S. warship fired missiles at two approaching Iranian jet fighters, but the fighters reversed course.”
By early 1988 it was clear that Iran could not win a war against the combined forces of Saddam Hussein and the US. Even the gains by Iranian forces in the eight-year war were now being lost. The coordinated and jointly planned actions between the US and Iraq in April of 1988, for example, resulted in Saddam Hussein’s government retaking the Faw peninsula. On April 19, 1988, The Washington Post reported the US attack on Iranian ships and oil platform. It also reported that, according to Iran, the retaking of Faw by the Iraqi forces was supported by US helicopters.
The time had come for Iran to take the bullet and accept a humiliating ceasefire offered by the US-dominated United Nations, the same institution that after eight years of war, and despite all evidence to the contrary, could not still determine which party was guilty of starting it.
The last major event that brought about the final capitulation of Iran occurred on July 3, 1988. On that day the American warship Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers on board. True to its pattern of denying any role in the Iran-Iraq war, at first the United States government tried to deny culpability in the downing of the civilian airliner. On July 3 AP reported that the “Pentagon said U.S. Navy forces in the gulf sank two Iranian patrol boats and downed an F-14 fighter jet in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday during an exchange of fire.” The report also said that, according to Iran, the US shot down not an F-14 but a civilian airliner killing all passengers on board. “U.S. Navy officials in the gulf,” the report went on say, “denied the Iranian claim.”
Many similar reports were made by foreign journalists, particularly the Japan Economic Newswire, which also reported on July 3, 1988 that the “U.S. Defense Department issued a statement on the crash of an Iran air airbus Sunday and denied U.S. involvement in the incident as claimed by Iran.” However, once the charred bodies of passengers of the Iran Air Flight 655 were shown floating in the ocean, the US admitted that the plane brought down was not an F-14 but a civilian airliner. In what The New York Times of July 4, 1988, titled the “Quotation of the Day,” Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated: “After receiving further data and evaluating information available from the Persian Gulf, we believe that the cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes, while actively engaged with threatening Iranian surface units and protecting itself from what was concluded to be a hostile aircraft, shot down an Iranian airliner over the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Government deeply regrets this incident.”
Subsequently, the US claimed that the “Iranian airliner, in some ways, was not acting like a passenger plane . . . It was heading directly for the ship, appeared to be descending (as though it might be 40 The United States and Iran attacking) and was about four miles outside the usual commercial air corridor” (The Washington Post, July 4, 1988). The Pentagon further asserted that USS Vincennes was in international waters, i.e. outside the territorial waters of Iran, and that the passenger plane was emitting a military electronic code.
Slowly but surely, all the above claims were proved to be false. Vincennes was not in international waters, but in Iran’s territorial waters. The Iranian Airbus was not heading for the ship or even descending but ascending. The plane was not four miles outside of the usual commercial air corridor, but well within it. Moreover, Flight 655 was not emitting any military signals but regular transponder signals, which identified it as a commercial aircraft.
All these contradictions resurfaced four years later, when on July 1, 1992, the ABC News program Nightline broadcast a piece, investigated jointly with Newsweek magazine, entitled “The USS Vincennes: Public War, Secret War.” Newsweek magazine itself published on July 13, 1992, a separate article by John Barry and Roger Charles which appeared under the title “Sea of Lies.” Both pieces showed the contradictions in the US claims, four years earlier, concerning the downing of the Iranian civilian plane.
Indeed, with regard to the answers provided by the US government to the questions “Where, precisely, was the Vincennes at the time of the shoot down?” and “What was she doing there?” ABC’s Nightline stated that the “official response to those two questions has been a tissue of lies, fabrications, half-truths and omissions.” For example, on the issue of the exact position of USS Vincennes when it shot the Iranian airliner, the following exchange between Ted Koppel of Nightline and Admiral William J. Crowe Jr. took place:
TED KOPPEL: But if I were to ask you today, was the Vincennes in international
waters at the time that she shot down the Airbus—
WILLIAM J. CROWE JR.: Yes, she was.
TED KOPPEL: In international waters?
WILLIAM J. CROWE JR.: No, no, no. She was in Iran’s territorial waters.
TED KOPPEL: Let me ask you again. Where was the Vincennes at the time that she
shot down the Airbus?
WILLIAM J. CROWE JR.: She was in Iran’s territorial waters.
After showing more such contradictions in the official US account of the incident, the program concentrated on the second question: “What was USS Vincennes doing in Iran’s territorial waters?” The answer given by Nightline was that Vincennes, as well as other US naval forces in the Persian Gulf, was there as part of an “undeclared,” “covert,” or “secret war” against Iran. In this war USS Vincennes had entered Iran’s territorial waters provoking the Iranian navy to engage in a fight when it shot down Iran Air Flight 655.
“Sea of Lies” told the same story but in greater detail. It recounted how the “trigger happy” captain of USS Vincennes, Will Rogers III, had invaded the territorial waters of Iran looking for a fight under the pretext of rescuing a Liberian tanker, the Stoval, which in reality did not exist. Then, after creating a tense situation, the inevitable happened: it shot down a civilian airliner. What followed was a campaign of lies and fabrications at the highest levels of US government to “cover up” what had actually happened and the place of this incident within the broader US war against Iran. “The top Pentagon brass,” write John Barry and Roger Charles, “understood from the beginning that if the whole truth about the Vincennes came out, it would mean months of humiliating headlines. So the U.S. Navy did what all navies do after terrible blunders at sea: it told lies and handed out medals.”
If one knows the history of the US’s role in the Iran-Iraq war, then the USS Vincennes affair does not come as a big surprise. In the absence of such knowledge, however, the Nightline and the subsequent Newsweek magazine reports appeared to be revelations. Many newspapers wrote about what had been reported. The Washington Post of July 1, 1992, for example, called “Public War, Secret War” a “provocative report” with an “entirely different take on the story.” It further said that ABC News and Newsweek reporter John Barry and Nightline anchor Ted Koppel made “the persuasive—though not conclusive—case that the United States not only provoked the incident but also lied to cover it up.” But, The Washington Post went on to say, once the report claimed that the US was engaged in a “‘secret war’ against Iran on behalf of its erstwhile ally in the region, Iraq,” then it moved onto “shakier ground.” Obviously The Washington Post had no clue as to how deep, long, and extensive the “secret war” of the US against Iran was.
Even some US Congressmen appeared to be surprised by the reporting. For example, according to The Washington Post of July 7, 1992, following the Nightline and Newsweek reports, Senator Sam Nunn, then Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney to request “an expeditious inquiry into these serious allegations.” Needless to say, nothing came out of these inquiries. The New York Times reported on July 22, 1992, that Admiral Crowe appeared before the House Armed Services Committee, and delivered a 27-page response to the report, denying that “American military had cooperated with the Iraqi military as part of a secret war against the Iranians. ‘The accusations of a cover-up are preposterous and unfounded,’ Admiral Crowe said.” However, he “acknowledged that the Vincennes was in Iranian waters when she shot the airliner but asserted that the location did not have an important bearing on the investigation,” the report said.
From the perspective of many Iranians, who knew full well the US’s role in the Iran-Iraq war, the Vincennes affair was, even if an accident, the epitome of an undeclared war against Iran. Some Iranians even went beyond that and, as The Washington Post reported on July 4, 1988, accused the US of “deliberately shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner.” In turn, they asked for revenge. Yet, as stated earlier, the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 marked the end of the Iran-Iraq war, since it had now become clear that Iran was engaged in a direct war with the US, a war that Iran could not possibly win. Almost two weeks after the downing of the civilian airliner by the USS Vincennes Iran accepted UN Resolution 598, calling for a ceasefire. On July 21, 1988, The Washington Post reported that “Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, took personal responsibility today for the decision to accept a cease-fire with Iraq and, in words with the ring of defeat, called it worse than swallowing poison.” The actual quotation was: “Making this decision was deadlier than swallowing poison. I submit[ted] myself to God’s will and drank this drink for His satisfaction” (The New York Times, July 21, 1988).
Such history appears to be unknown to the US policy makers. It also appears to have been forgotten by the American news media. Indeed, not a single newspaper in the US mentioned the 20th anniversary of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655. Yet, people in Iran remembered it well. On July 2, 2006, Mehr News Agency commemorated the event with the headline: “U.S. downing of Flight 655 was state-sponsored terrorism.” It pointed out just about all the facts discussed above. It mentioned how the U.S. Navy’s guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes “shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 passengers and crew members, including 66 children.” It also mentioned how the “U.S. government refused to apologize for the incident, which was the seventh deadliest plane crash in aviation history, claiming that the crew had mistaken the Iranian Airbus A300 for an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter.” It pointed out that “Iran condemned the incident as an international crime caused by the U.S. Navy’s ‘negligence and reckless behavior’”. It stated the “fact that the United States awarded the Commendation Medal to Vincennes air-warfare coordinator Lieutenant Commander Scott Lustig was an admission that the attack was deliberate.” It quoted an Iranian to say that this “event shows that the organizations responsible for maintaining global security not only refuse to defend the oppressed nations, they also cover up the major powers’ crimes.” Finally, it quoted another Iranian to say: “History will never forget the United States’ crimes against humanity.”
Twenty years after the downing of the Iranian civilian airliner the United States is once again on the verge of war with Iran, this time not in the company of Saddam Hussein and associates but in the presence of Ehud Olmert and friends. It is said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Let us hope that the US policy makers, who seem to be suffering from a severe case of historical amnesia, don’t repeat the kind of tragic history that is associated with Iran Air Flight 655.
SASAN FAYAZMANESH is chair of the Department of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of The United States and Iran (Routledge, 2008). He can be reached at: email@example.com
1) See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2008/july/106481.htm.
2) See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2008/07/106479.htm.
3) For a full discussion see The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge, 2008).