US military shoots down passenger plane - Iran Air Flight 655
Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board were killed. The jet was hit while flying over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, along the flight's usual route, shortly after departing Bandar Abbas International Airport, the flight's stopover location. The incident occurred during the Iran–Iraq War, which had been continuing for nearly eight years. Vincennes had entered Iranian territory after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.
The reason for the downing has been disputed between the governments of the two countries. According to the U.S., the Vincennes crew had incorrectly identified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat, a U.S.-made jet fighter that had been part of the Iranian Air Force inventory since the 1970s. While the F-14s had been supplied to Iran in an air-to-air configuration, the Vincennes crew had been briefed that the Iranian F-14s were equipped with air-to-ground ordnance. The US military asserts that the Vincennes had made ten attempts to contact the aircraft both on military and on civilian frequencies, but had received no response. According to Iran, the cruiser negligently shot down the aircraft, which was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian aircraft, and not Mode II as used by Iranian military aircraft. The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. Some analysts blamed the captain of Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, for overly aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment. In the days immediately following the incident, President Ronald Reagan issued a written diplomatic note to the Iranian government, expressing deep regret. However, the U.S. continued to insist that Vincennes was acting in "self-defense".
In 1996, the governments of the U.S. and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement "... the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident ..." When former President Reagan was directly asked if he considered the statement an apology, he replied, "Yes." As part of the settlement, even though the U.S. government did not admit legal liability or formally apologize to Iran, it agreed to pay US$61.8 million on an ex gratia basis in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims. The shootdown was the deadliest aviation disaster involving an Airbus A300, as well as the deadliest aviation disaster in 1988. It was also the deadliest airliner shootdown incident until 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine.
The plane, an Airbus A300 (registered as EP-IBU), was under the control of 37-year-old Captain Mohsen Rezaian (a veteran pilot with 7,000 hours of flight time), 31-year-old First Officer Kamran Teymouri, and 33-year-old Flight Engineer Mohammad Reza Amini. It left Bandar Abbas at 10:17 Iran time (UTC+03:30), 27 minutes after its scheduled departure time. It should have been a 28-minute flight. After takeoff, it was directed by the Bandar Abbas tower to turn on its transponder and proceed over the Persian Gulf. The flight was assigned routinely to commercial air corridor Amber 59, a 20-mile (32 km)-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. The short distance made for a simple flight pattern: climb to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), cruise, and descend into Dubai. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder "squawk" code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained radio contact in English with appropriate air traffic control facilities.
On the morning of 3 July 1988, USS Vincennes was passing through the Strait of Hormuz returning from an escort duty. A helicopter deployed from the cruiser reportedly received small arms fire from Iranian patrol vessels as it observed from high altitude. Vincennes moved to engage the Iranian vessels, in the course of which they all violated Omani waters and left after being challenged and ordered to leave by a Royal Navy of Oman warship. Vincennes then pursued the Iranian gunboats, entering Iranian territorial waters. Two other U.S. Navy ships, USS Sides and USS Elmer Montgomery, were nearby. Admiral Crowe said the cruiser's helicopter was over international waters when the gunboats first fired upon it.
Flight 655 was first detected by Vincennes immediately after takeoff when it received a short IFF Mode II, possibly leading the crew of Vincennes to believe the airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat (capable of carrying unguided bombs since 1985) diving into an attack profile. Contrary to the accounts of various Vincennes crew members, the cruiser's Aegis Combat System recorded that the airliner was climbing at the time and its radio transmitter was squawking on only the Mode III civilian frequency, and not on the military Mode II.
Since the USS Stark incident, all aircraft in the area had to monitor 121.5 MHz, the International Air Distress (IAD) radio frequency. A total of 10 attempts were made to warn the airliner, seven on the Military Air Distress (MAD) frequency, and three on the IAD frequency. There were no responses.
At 10:24:22, after receiving no responses, Vincennes fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner at 10:24:43. The plane disintegrated immediately and crashed into the water soon after. None of the 290 passengers and crew on board survived. The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were never found.
At the time the missiles were launched, the Vincennes was located at 26°30′47″N 56°00′57″E, placing it within the twelve mile limit of Iranian territorial seas. The location of Vincennes in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident was admitted by the U.S. government in legal briefs and publicly by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, on Nightline.
Critique of U.S. media coverage
In 1991, political scientist Robert Entman of George Washington University compared U.S. media coverage of the incident with the similar shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviet Union five years earlier by studying material from Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS Evening News. According to Entman, framing techniques were used to frame the Korean Airlines incident as deliberate sabotage while framing the Iran Air incident as a tragic mistake, stating "the angle taken by the U.S. media emphasized the moral bankruptcy and guilt of the perpetrating nation. With Iran Air 655, the frame de-emphasised guilt and focused on the complex problems of operating military high technology." By "de-emphasizing the agency and the victims and by the choice of graphics and adjectives, the news stories about the U.S. downing of an Iranian plane called it a technical problem while the Soviet downing of a Korean jet was portrayed as a moral outrage." Entman included polling that appeared to show that the unbalanced coverage swayed public opinion against the Soviet Union and Iran. In July 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine, some commentators noted the discrepancy of U.S. official position and media coverage of the two similar incidents.
The event sparked an intense international controversy, with Iran condemning the attack. In mid-July 1988, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the United States saying the attack "could not have been a mistake" and was a "criminal act", a "massacre", and an "atrocity". George H. W. Bush, then-vice president of the United States in the Reagan administration, defended his country at the UN by arguing that the U.S. attack had been a wartime incident and the crew of Vincennes had acted appropriately to the situation. The Soviet Union asked the U.S. to withdraw from the area and supported efforts by the Security Council to end the Iran–Iraq War. Most of the remainder of the 13 delegates who spoke supported the U.S. position, saying one of the problems was that a 1987 resolution to end the Iran–Iraq war had been ignored. Following the debate, Security Council Resolution 616 was passed expressing "deep distress" over the U.S. attack and "profound regret" for the loss of human lives, and stressing the need to end the Iran–Iraq War as resolved in 1987.
Inside Iran, this shootdown was perceived as a purposeful attack by United States, signalling that the U.S. was about to enter into a direct war against Iran on the side of Iraq.
In February 1996, the U.S. agreed to pay Iran US$131.8 million in settlement to discontinue a case brought by Iran in 1989 against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice relating to this incident, together with other earlier claims before the Iran–United States Claims Tribunal. US$61.8 million of the claim was in compensation for the 248 Iranians killed in the shoot-down: $300,000 per wage-earning victim and $150,000 per non-wage-earner.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives, but never formally apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing. On 5 July 1988 President Ronald Reagan expressed regret; when directly asked if he considered the statement an apology, Reagan replied, "Yes." George H. W. Bush, the vice president of the United States at the time commented on a separate occasion, speaking to a group of Republican ethnic leaders (7 August 1988): "I will never apologize for the United States—I don't care what the facts are ... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." The quote, although unrelated to the downing of the Iranian air liner and not in any official capacity, has been mistakenly attributed as such. Bush used the phrase frequently during the 1988 campaign and promised to "never apologize for the United States" months prior to the July 1988 shoot-down and as early as January 1988.
The incident overshadowed Iran–United States relations for many years. The former CIA analyst Kenneth M. Pollack wrote: "The shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran." Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 five months later, the United States government initially blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group backed by Syria, with assumptions of assistance from Iran in retaliation for Flight 655. The distrust generated between the U.S. and Iran as a result of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 was a challenge in the development of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was agreed to on 14 July 2015.
Despite the mistakes made in the downing of the plane, the crew of USS Vincennes were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. The air warfare coordinator on duty received the Navy Commendation Medal, but The Washington Post reported in 1990 that the awards were for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and for his actions relating to the surface engagement with Iranian gunboats. In 1990, Rogers was awarded the Legion of Merit "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer [...] from April 1987 to May 1989". The award was given for his service as the commanding officer of Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.