The Shoot Down of Iran Air Flight
By SASAN FAYAZMANESH
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
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: 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
asked the UN Security Council in late 1986 for protection of its tankers in the
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
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
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
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
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
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,
TED KOPPEL: In international
WILLIAM J. CROWE JR.: No,
no, no. She was in Iran's
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
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
"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
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
Fresno. He is
the author of The United States and Iran (Routledge, 2008). He can be
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).