The USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655: When the US Shot Down a Civilian Airliner

In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War in the Middle East, the US Navy shot down a civilian passenger airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people, making it the seventh most-deadly air incident in history. In the United States, the Iran Air shootdown is a forgotten incident in a forgotten war. But in Iran, it is still a source of mistrust and hostility towards the US.

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USS Vincennes                                                      photo by US Navy

In 1979, revolution broke out in Iran. The country had been under the iron-fisted rule of the unelected Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had been installed as monarch after a US-planned coup had overthrown the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Iran became a regional power in the Persian Gulf and a staunch US ally who was heavily armed with US-made weapons. When an underground revolutionary movement began to grow under the leadership of the exiled religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shah’s secret police, known as SAVAK, imprisoned and tortured thousands of political dissidents. In January 1979, the Iranian government collapsed under the protests, the Shah fled the country, and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power and declared an “Islamic Republic”. It was the beginning of the radical Islam movement that is still today the US’s primary global political opponent.

But in 1980, Saddam Hussein, the President-for-life in Iran’s neighbor Iraq, launched an invasion into Iran, hoping to take advantage of the chaotic situation to seize the long-disputed border region of the Shatt-al-Arab. The Iran-Iraq War dragged on for eight years. Hoping to break the Islamic regime in Iran, the United States supplied military equipment and intelligence information to its ally Saddam Hussein, even after Iraq tried to break the military stalemate by using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. For a time, both Iran and Iraq launched medium-range missiles at each other’s capitols, in what was known as “The War of the Cities”.

When that didn’t work, Iraq began a strategy of blockading Iranian ports, attacking any ships entering or exiting them with aircraft armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, in an attempt to shut down Iran’s global trade. Iran responded by obtaining “Silkworm” anti-ship missiles from China and attacking ships that belonged to Iraq or to Iraq’s partners. It became known as “The Tanker War”.

In 1986, the country of Kuwait asked the international community to take steps to protect neutral shipping in the Gulf. After the Soviet Union began to “reflag” ships in the area, protecting them by allowing them to fly a Soviet flag, the supposedly-neutral United States stepped in and did the same–the Cold War was still raging, and the US did not want the USSR to gain any influence in the Middle East. When a number of neutral-flagged ships were hit anyway by Iranian aircraft with anti-ship missiles, the US Navy was sent to patrol the Persian Gulf and to escort neutral Kuwaiti tankers through the war zone. In 1987, the destroyer USS Stark was hit–not by an Iranian missile, but by an Iraqi Exocet. The Iraqi pilot had mistaken the Stark for an Iranian tanker. The US Navy also engaged in periodic firefights with Iranian patrol boats that approached neutral shipping.

On July 3, 1988, the American guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes was in the Straits of Hormuz when it was approached by a number of Iranian patrol boats. A firefight developed, and the Vincennes entered Iranian territorial waters in pursuit. At the same time, after being delayed for half an hour, Iran Air Flight 655, the regularly-scheduled Airbus A300 passenger flight from Iran’s Bandar Abbas International Airport to Dubai, took off. Its normal half-hour flight path took it over the Straits of Hormuz.

The crew of the Vincennes spotted the Iranian airliner on their radar, but for some reason decided that it was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter (a number of Iranian F-14’s also operated from Bandar Abbas). For several weeks now, the Iranian Air Force had been sending its F-14’s (the Shah had been the only US ally that had been supplied with these American-made fighters) towards American ships in mock attack runs, pulling them away before reaching firing position. The Vincennes decided that this was another Iranian F-14, and were alarmed when it did not pull away. The captain later reported that the crew had tried to radio the approaching aircraft to make it break off, but when the presumed F-14 began to dive at a high speed towards them, theVincennes fired two anti-aircraft missiles at it. The “F-14” was actually Iran Air Flight 655, on its way to Dubai. All 290 people aboard were killed: all but 38 of them were Iranians.

The Iranian Government immediately condemned the shootdown as “a massacre” and “a criminal act”. The United States defended itself by announcing that the Vincennes had been in international waters, that the airliner had been broadcasting a transponder signal identifying it as an Iranian military plane, had repeatedly ignored radio requests on both military and civilian channels to break off, and had descended towards the ship in a classic attack profile just before being shot down.

In August 1988, two months after the shootdown, the Pentagon released the report on its own investigation, and, from the computer data recorded by the ship itself, concluded that virtually everything the Vincennes crew and US officials had stated in the immediate aftermath of the shootdown was wrong. The Iranian Airbus had not been transmitting a military transponder code, but was transmitting the standard code identifying it as a civilian airliner. The plane had not descended towards the ship just before the missiles were fired, but had been steadily climbing to its assigned air traffic control altitude. And when the Vincennes radioed their orders to break off, they directed them to “the Iranian F-14”, which did not actually exist: the airliner crew had no way of telling that the Vincennes was talking to them. There was even a recorded warning from a crew member in the ship’s Combat Information Center that the target might be a “COMAIR” (commercial aircraft). There is still no clear explanation of why the Vincennes crew mistook the civilian airliner for an attacking Iranian military jet. But despite all the errors, the report concluded that the captain and crew of the Vincennes had acted properly based on the information they had available to them. The US did not admit until 1992 that the Vincennes had actually been two miles inside Iranian national waters at the time of the incident.

The Iranian Government took the matter to the UN Security Council and then to the World Court, asking for an apology and compensation. President George HW Bush responded by declaring “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.” In 1996, under the Clinton Administration, the US agreed to express its “deep regrets” and pay $61.8 million in compensation to the victims’ families, but did not admit any guilt or legal liability. The Iranians, in exchange, dropped their World Court case.

Today, the incident has been mostly forgotten in the United States. But in Iran, it is still cited as an example of American hostility to the Islamic Republic, and most Iranians still believe, rightly or wrongly, that it was a deliberate intentional attack.

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