Article - S013

Shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655 still defines US-Iran relations

Published on News24: 04 October 2017 


Even more shocking than the number of people who have forgotten about Iran Air Flight 655, is the number of people who’ve never heard about it in the first place. Quite frankly, it is nothing short of astounding. For those of you falling into either of these categories, let me fill you in…


On July 3rd, 1988, a commercial passenger airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, was flying along its official operating route from Tehran to Dubai. While in flight, the Airbus-A300 was shot down by a United States Navy guided missile cruiser named the USS Vincennes, using two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles.


All 274 passengers and 16 crew, were killed in what is ranked as aviation’s 8th deadliest air-disaster of all time. Of the 290 people on board, 254 were Iranian.


Most astonishingly, not only was the Iranian airliner still flying in Iranian airspace when it was shot down, the USS Vincennes was sailing inside Iran’s territorial waters when it launched its missiles.


The plot thickens


Despite this tragic ‘incident’ stinking of international terrorism, the United States government claimed the following: the crew of the Vincennes, while engaged in a skirmish with Iranian gunboats, incorrectly identified the Airbus-A300 as an attacking F14-Tomcat. This, even though the cruiser’s onboard Aegis Combat System showed the ‘bogie’ ascending in altitude and transmitting a Mode III civilian code.


Upon failed attempts to contact the ‘bogie’, Captain William C. Rogers III and his 18 bridge crew members suffered a supposedly debilitating psychological episode known as ‘scenario fulfilment’, which led to them ‘mistakenly’ shooting down Iran Air Flight 655.


Where the United States prefers to believe that ‘scenario fulfilment’ killed 290 innocent people travelling on a civilian airliner, the Iranians see it as blind aggression that resulted from downright incompetence on the part of the US Navy.


Cold aftermath


So, how exactly did the United States respond to this ‘incident’? The US government issued notes of regret for the loss of human life.


This was of little consolation to the Iranian nation and families of the deceased, especially when the US vice president, George H. W. Bush, said at the time: “I will never apologise for the United States – I don't care what the facts are…” 


And true to his word, with the tragedy’s 30th anniversary less than a year away, the United States has never apologised for the shoot-down. 


Interestingly, the US Navy went on to award the entire crew of the Vincennes with Combat Action Ribbons, the air-warfare coordinator with the Navy Commendation Medal, and Captain Rogers with the venerable Legion of Merit.


The closest the US ever came to acknowledging wrongdoing was in 1996, when the US government agreed to pay Iran US$131.8 million in settlement. This, largely to discontinue a case lodged by Iran against the US at the International Court of Justice with respect to the incident.


The reality is, Iran was powerless when confronted by the US nuclear super-power – so powerless, in fact, that it couldn’t even muster an official apology from the American President. And respectively, the US was so undaunted by Iran that it believed it could get away with the incident without even issuing a formal apology.


Strained US-Iran relations


Whereas the United States and much of the world have effectively forgotten about Iran Air Flight 655, the Iranian leadership and its people most certainly have not.


This tragic event is remembered across Iran like the US remembers 9/11, and the UK remembers 7/7. Keeping Iran’s ‘7/3’ in mind, Trump’s statements at the 72nd UNGA are given stark new context with respect to their inappropriateness.


His statements included:

  • “Iran's government (must) end its pursuit of death and destruction … and (must) respect the sovereign rights of its neighbours.”; and
  • “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program.”

One only needs to consider the reverse scenario to appreciate the resounding depth of this context:  Imagine a state-of-the-art Iranian guided missile cruiser breaching US territorial waters off New York and then ‘mistakenly’ shooting down an American Airlines Boeing-777 on its merry way to London.


Would President Trump be satisfied with ‘a note of regret from the Iranian government for the loss of life’, followed by a ‘scenario fulfilment’ narrative, and then, to top it off, a blunt refusal by the Iranian President to apologise for the ‘incident’? 


I fear Tehran would have been vaporised within hours of the ‘unprovoked Iranian attack and unprecedented act of war’, irrespective of what the salient facts were behind the shoot-down.


Iran Nuclear Deal at risk


And so, with all this historical baggage in tow, either forgotten or disregarded, US President Donald Trump will announce his decision on the Iran Nuclear Deal this month – a deal that he has referred to as ‘deeply flawed’, a ‘disaster’ and an ‘embarrassment’.


In Trump’s not-so-humble opinion, the Iran Nuclear Deal is ‘one of the worst deals’ he’s ever seen, and that Iran is nothing more than a ‘rogue state’ that’s trying to take the United States for a ride. Well, Mr President, in light of your nation’s not-so-stellar history with Iran, you should be unreservedly grateful that the Iranians signed the nuclear deal at all. 


And, rather than denouncing the nuclear deal, you should capitalise on this golden opportunity and commend the exemplary ‘sacrifice’ Iran has made to voluntarily abandon their nuclear weapons program in favour of economic prosperity – a sacrifice that North Korea is refusing to make, and a sacrifice that the United States itself isn't even considering.


Global introspection needed


From a contrarian perspective, the audaciousness of Trump to call Iran a rogue state, dictate its nuclear policy and undermine its right to defend itself from the rash military actions of uncompromising, sovereignty-flouting and dis-proportionally powerful nations, is something the whole world needs to reflect on.  


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