If you ask Americans what the major flashpoints are that worsened relations between the US and Iran, the takeover of the US embassy in Teheran and holding the embassy personnel hostage will be easily recalled. Less likely to be recounted is the CIA-backed coup of 1953 that ousted the elected prime minister of that country and replaced him with the despotic Reza Pahlavi who adopted the grandiose title of the Shah of Iran.
But as Max Fisher points out, you are very unlikely to hear the story of Iran Air flight 655.
The story of Iran Air 655 begins, like so much of the U.S.-Iran struggle, with the 1979 Islamic revolution. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, the United States supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against the two countries’ mutual Iranian enemy. The war dragged on for eight awful years, claiming perhaps a million lives.
Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes. As the American and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. It fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.
Fisher says that some in Iran assumed that the shooting was intentional and that this colors their view of the US.
If Iran believes that the United States is so committed to its destruction that it would willingly shoot down a plane full of Iranian civilians, then Tehran has every incentive to assume we’re lying in negotiations. It also has strong incentives to try to build a nuclear weapon, or at least get close enough to deter the American invasion that it feared was coming in 1988 and perhaps again in 2002 with President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.
I don’t think that the US deliberately shot down that civilian airliner. It is hard to think of a reason for deliberately committing such a monstrous act. It was likely a combination of errors, incompetence, technical malfunctions, and possibly a trigger-happy ship commander who had terrible judgment.
But even such an admission of limited culpability was too much for the US when the victims of the blunder are from the ‘enemy’ nation, because nothing must be said or done that might create any sympathy for them. So the US had to spin a story in which they were the victims and the Iranians the diabolically evil ones responsible for the tragedy.
How did they do that? As I wrote about in some detail back in 2005, president Ronald Reagan and other American leaders actually justified the action of the Vincennes commander and lied shamelessly in order to create the impression of crazy Iranians who set about fooling the commander into thinking that his ship was being attacked by a fighter jet. “So the image we were given repeatedly in the days immediately following the disaster was that this huge Airbus A300 civilian passenger plane was essentially dive-bombing the US cruiser, possibly on a kamikaze-type mission, which meant that the commander of the cruiser had no choice but to shoot it down.”
Why would the Iranians do such a thing? Because they wanted to sacrifice civilians to make the US look bad.
This bizarre explanation was lapped up by the media in the US because of course we ‘know’ that Iranians are crazy people who don’t value life as highly as we do because life there is cheap and plentiful, etc., etc. I lived through that time and remember being appalled that people would believe such a crazy theory. As time went on, all the assertions made in support of this theory were shown to be false. Reagan and others were adopting the tried-and-true government propaganda strategy of brazenly lying to put the best face on bad events up front, knowing that the media has no interest in giving the later emerging truth the same amount of coverage. This allows the government to never have to account for such blatant disregard for the truth.
Similarly, I do not think that the USSR deliberately shot down the Korean Air flight 007 back in 1983 killing all 269 people on board. But since that equally horrific act was committed by the godless commies, Reagan did not hesitate to call that act a “massacre” and a “crime against humanity”, words that could just as easily been applied to the shooting of Iran Air 655 by the US just five years later.
You would think that after all this time, we could now acknowledge how bad the shooting of Iran Air 655 was and maybe express our regret. In 1996, the US and Iran settled their dispute at the International Court of Justice and the US paid compensation of $68.1 million as compensation for the families of the victims. But the US has never admitted responsibility or apologized because being a superpower means never having to say you are sorry.
But while Fisher is to be commended for reminding us of this piece of important history that the US government and media would prefer to flush down the memory hole, even he downplays all of what happened in order to put the best possible light on that ghastly tragedy.