The Shoot-Down of Iran Air Flight 655

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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 incident.

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.

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.
Yeah.

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 straight, 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-year-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
(for a full discussion see The
United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment
).
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 retaliated. Kuwait asked the UN Security Council
in late 1986 for protection of its tankers in the Gulf. 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 combat operations.

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 the US. 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 reversed course.”

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 incident.”

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 commercial aircraft.

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, she was.

TED KOPPEL:
In international waters?

WILLIAM
J. CROWE JR.
: No, no, no. She was in Iran’s territorial
waters.

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 territorial waters.

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 “undeclared,” “covert,” or “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 was.

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 USS 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.

This article
originally appeared on CounterPunch.

July
16, 2008

Sasan
Fayazmanesh [send him
mail
] is chair of the Department of Economics at California
State University, Fresno. He is the author of The
United States and Iran
(Routledge, 2008).

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