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Remember the Vincennes? The US’s Long History of Provoking Iran

Photograph Source: Navy Camera Operator: PH3 RONALD W. ERDRICH, USN – Public Domain

Remember the Vincennes?

That’s the name of the U.S. Navy warship that shot down an Iranian airliner with missiles in 1988, killing all 290 people aboard that airplane.

That shootdown, where 60 children perished, was an accident, according to the U.S. Navy’s official report. However, many, including military personnel, considered that report a whitewash.

That U.S. military attack on a civilian airliner occurred during a time when the administration of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan was all but openly supporting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had launched a war of aggression against Iran – the nation now in the crosshairs of the President Donald Trump Administration.

The Vincennes incident is instructive as the Trump Administration is seemingly searching for a ripe moment to launch a war against Iran, an action long sought by right-wing forces in the United States along with U.S. Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Similar to U.S. anti-Iran stances in the 1980s when the U.S. pressured Iran as part of its tilt toward the invading but quickly battered Iraqis, the Trump Administration is waging an economic war against Iran through economy-crippling sanctions. The goal is to bludgeon Iran after Trump unilaterally withdrew from a nuclear non-proliferation treaty that had Iran’s full compliance.

The July 3, 1988 Vincennes incident is also instructive because it vividly displayed of how things can go horribly wrong really quick and how the U.S. government will brazenly lie to evade liability for its criminal misconduct.

With the U.S. playing a ‘Top Cop’ role in the Persian Gulf – today as in the 1980s ostensibly to contain Iran – it’s interesting that the U.S. Navy’s defense of that indefensible 1988 airliner shootdown contained components of excuses utter persistently by American police in instances of fatal shootings of unarmed civilians.

In the cases of those murdered by American cops, the offending officer immediately declares he or she fired because they feared for their life. The captain of the Vincennes declared he ordered the airliner to be shot down because he feared for his life…the life of his ship and crew allegedly endangered by an unarmed civilian airliner.

Like the standard cop defense of supposedly seeing a gun in the hand of the unarmed suspect, Vincennes Captain Will Rogers claimed he saw a jet fighter descending in fast attack approach not a widebody airliner ascending after taking off from an airport.

Like the physical evidence in too many cop shootings that contradict cop claims, data from the sophisticated combat control computer system onboard the Vincennes contradicted the contentions of its captain. Top Navy and Reagan Administration officials later accepted that captain’s claims as valid.

Another parallel between cop shootings and the airliner shootdown is the blame-the-victim reflex.

The Vincennes captain, Navy brass, top Reagan Administration officials (along with much of the American mainstream news media) blamed Iran for allowing its airliner to fly outside the corridor for commercial airliners, allowing that airliner to operate without using identification signals for civilian airplanes and allowing the airliner to fly over a skirmish where lightly armed Iranian military motorboats were allegedly harassing the Vincennes, a heavily armed cruiser larger in size than any U.S. naval vessel except an aircraft carrier.

As in the case of American cop shootings of unarmed civilians, that blame-the-victim reflex quickly feell apart. Yet,  those discredited blame remain in the Navy’s official report [white-wash] of the incident.

Here’s the truth about that horrible incident:

The Iranian airliner flew in the proper corridor for civilian aircraft.

The Iranian airliner used the proper civilian identification signals.

And neither the airliner pilot or Iranian air traffic controllers could have known that the Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters to attack non-menacing motorboats minutes before the airliner’s take-off.

(Other Navy personnel in the area had dubbed the Vincennes ‘Robo Cruiser’ for Captain Rogers’ aggressive behavior toward Iranian assets. Many police involved in fatal shootings are likewise known for their aggressiveness.)

Similar to cop shootings, Navy officials concocted an explanation to rationalize the irrational, criminal action of the Vincennes captain and his crew.

Navy officials asserted that the reason why Captain Rogers misinterpreted data from the Vincennes advanced Aegis Combat System was “scenario fulfillment” –- a situation where available evidence is rejected through an unconscious attempt to accept a preconceived notion…another twist on the old:  I-think-I’m-in-danger-so-I-gotta-shoot excuse.

A few weeks before the arguable war crime airliner shootdown by the Vincennes, the U.S. Navy destroyed half of Iran’s Navy after Reagan officials blamed Iran for planting a sea mine that damaged a U.S. warship.

Recently, the Trump Administration quickly blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Trump officials claimed Iranian forces attacked the ships with naval mines and/or torpedoes.

But the Japanese company that owned one of the tankers said crew members saw flying objects coming toward that ship before explosions rocked that vessel.

Damage to that tanker is above that ship’s waterline – improbable damage from a mine or torpedo that would occur below the waterline. (Japan’s Prime Minister was on an official visit in Iran at the very time of the attack on the Japanese tanker,  leading some to wonder why Iran would execute such an act at that time.)

A double-standard element in the Vincennes incident is that while American officials condemned Iran for the Vincennes destruction of Iran Flight 655, months earlier those same officials coddled an aggressor for an act that killed American sailors and badly damaged a U.S. warship.

On May 17, 1987 an Iraqi fighter jet fired missiles into the U.S.S. Stark, killing 37 sailors.

American officials accepted assertions from its then erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein that the Iraqi jet attack on the Stark was an accident where the pilot mistook the Stark for an Iranian warship.

While Navy brass bashed Stark commanders for failures, the confirmed failures of the Vincennes captain and crew were brushed off. Navy officials who sunk the career of the Stark’s captain, on the other  hand, issued the Vincennes captain and crew medals and combat ribbons.

 

 

 

 

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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