We still can’t handle the truth

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.


  1. colnago80 says

    Hey, how about Libyan Airliner flight 114 that was shot down by the IDF when it wandered over what was then Israel held Sinai, having gotten lost in bad weather and instrument failure.


  2. left0ver1under says

    At least the Soviets/Russians came clean about Korean Airlines Flight 007, releasing all their information. It was shown to be a mistake, not a deliberate attack.


    That’s more than can be said for the US about the Iranian flight – or about the terrorist bombing of civilian airliner Cubana Flight 455 by Orlando Bosch, which happened while George Bush Sr. was running the CIA.

    And let’s not forget Israel’s use of the USS Liberty for target practice, knowingly firing on a US warship, and the US government’s attempts to silence investigation of it.


    No doubt my mention of that will make slc go even more unhinged than he already is, if that is even possible.

  3. trucreep says

    When government is out of our control this is just one of many effects. The average American has more in common with the average Iranian than either do with their respective “elites” in each country. And yet we consider each other enemies. Our real enemies are closer to home than we’d like to think.

  4. maddog1129 says

    I think the headline has it all wrong. We CAN handle the truth, and we WANT to handle the truth, not the fake pablum fed to us.

  5. AMM says

    Yeah, I remember the Vincennes incident and the details you describe.

    I also remember back around the time of the Iranian revolution that there was widespread speculation that the US would invade and put the Shah back in power.

    FWIW, our local paper has an article today about the terrible terrorist attack on US marines in Lebanon umpty-ump years ago. They gloss over _why_ those marines were there. Hint: it wasn’t for a church picnic.

    That’s one thing about being an old geezer: you remember things. You don’t have to depend upon the lapdogs of the press to educate you about what happened during your lifetime. E.g., I still remember the Vietnam War, and the lies I lived through about it.

  6. lorn says

    People have to keep in mind a bit of military history. The missile attacks on the HMS Sheffield in 1982 and USS Stark, two months earlier, 17 May 1987, both of which effectively eliminated the ship as a military asset, were clear in the mind of the crew. The lesson is that you stop aircraft before they launch missiles.

    There is little military difference between an F-14 and a “lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner”. Even back in 1988 it was known that anti-ship missiles could be launched from large aircraft. If the aircraft is hostile, and intent on launching missiles it is greatly to your advantage that it is stopped outside their firing range. Once the aircraft gets within effective launch range you’re toast.

    Yes, there are anti-missile defenses. Both the HMS Sheffield and USS Stark had defenses. Smaller missiles, rapid-fire guns, decoys, and electronic spoofing and defense can, in theory, stop or deflect incoming missiles. But even now, much less 1988, it is a roll of the dice.

    Shooting down aircraft before they can launch missiles is a lot easier than shooting down missiles after they are fired. To make matters worse aircraft typically fire several missiles at a time and can be expected to coordinate their attacks with other air or surface craft. Which is why we still have exclusion zones and a strong preference to shoot down aircraft before they get close enough to pose a threat.

    Which brings up the question of why an airline and crew decided to take a flightpath across a well known conflict area? Admittedly, given the relative short distance of the flight (less than 150 miles) and long ranges of engagement in modern war (An Exocet is effective out to 110 miles) it would have been inconvenient to avoid the danger area entirely but nobody said war isn’t inconvenient.

    To further complicate matters it is my understanding is that there was some sort of gentleman’s agreement that the belligerents wouldn’t harm the airliners and that this understanding had held firm for years, even as the war ground on. The airlines seemed unconcerned even as western powers, that were less familiar with such routine flights through a zone of war, entered the gulf.

  7. colnago80 says

    As usual, leftOver1under, is uninformed as to what happened to the Liberty. The Liberty was actually spying on Egyptian communications and forwarding the information to the Mossad. Israeli military officials were informed that the ship was being recalled as, given the advance of the IDF across the Sinai Desert, the information was no longer useful. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship never received the recall order, which got lost somewhere between the CIA and the Navy Department and was still there the next day. To make matters worse, the ship was actually under the command of a CIA officer; the navy captain was only a figurehead. The IDF thought that, since, as far as they knew, the Liberty had been recalled, the ship might be a Russian spy ship and acted accordingly. Now my good buddy leftOverunder might argue that the pilots of the aircraft should have been able to recognize that the ship was not a Russian vessel. Unfortunately, identification of naval vessels from fast moving aircraft is a chancy thing. For instance, in the episode of the Bismarck, aircraft from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal, mistook a British heavy cruiser, Sheffield, for the German Battleship Bismarck and launched a torpedo attack on the former. They were unable to distinguish an 8000 ton heavy cruiser from a 40,000 ton battleship. It should be noted that the British pilots were flying 90 mph Swordfish torpedo bombers, not 500 mph jet aircraft like the F4 Phantom, greatly increasing the difficulty of the problem. Of course, because this was another CIA screw up, the US government hushed up the particulars of the incident and Israel agreed to carry the can.

  8. colnago80 says

    As I understand it, the pilot of the Libyan aircraft was ordered to land his plane at an IAF airbase in the Sinai and declined to do so, probably fearing that if he did, he might suffer severe consequences from Libyan authorities upon eventual return to that country.

    Actually, it was even worse. As I understand it, the IAF attempted to communicate with the commander of the IDF, David Elazar, finally getting a hold of him at his mistresses’ apartment, apparently causing coitus interruptus. Elazar angrily ordered the plane to be shot down and abruptly hung up the phone.

  9. eigenperson says

    Which brings up the question of why an airline and crew decided to take a flightpath across a well known conflict area?

    The real question is, why did some bloody idiots decide to have a war in the middle of a well-known airline flight path?

  10. Who Cares says

    Which brings up the question of why an airline and crew decided to take a flightpath across a well known conflict area?

    Perhaps because flightpaths are rigidly enforced to prevent planes from amongst other things hit each other, allow airlines to know how much fuel to take, the problem of handling non standard flight path for the ground controllers, etc.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Iran Air was on a regularly scheduled flight on a regularly scheduled flight path flying at the normal height and transmitting on the normal civilian frequency. Furthermore, it was revealed that the Vincennes was actually in Iranian territorial waters. So there really was no excuse basis for assigning any culpability to the Iranians.

    You can read the full details of the coverup here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *