Mourners carry coffins through the streets of Tehran, July 7, 1988, during a mass funeral for victims who died when Iran Air Flight 655 was blown out of the sky by the USS Vincennes.
Here's how Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher tells the story - virtually unknown here in the United States - of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which occurred 25 years ago during the Iran-Iraq War:
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 - who based his post on a new TIME magazine piece noting a number of valid Iranian grievances with the West - writes that the "horrible incident" helped cement Iranian enmity toward the United States government, but intimates that the whole episode was just a random mistake, an innocent fluke, albeit with tragic and long-lingering consequences. To this end, he quotes notorious war propagandist Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center, presumably because Pollack was the most high-profile serial fabricator Fisher could find with a quick Google search of "Iran Air Flight 655" and "accident."
Quoting from Pollack's 2004 compendium of conventional wisdom and glaring inaccuracies, "The Persian Puzzle," Fisher adds, "The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran. The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful... Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq's side."
Fisher recounts this story in order to explain why Iranian officials and diplomats might not view their American counterparts as trustworthy interlocutors when it comes to diplomacy over its nuclear program. He writes, "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."
Yet, both Pollack's explanation and Fisher's insinuation grossly decontextualize and sanitize the American role in the later stage of the Iran-Iraq War in general, and the destruction of Flight 655 in particular. To claim that - in mid-1988, no less - Tehran had to somehow "convince itself" that the Reagan administration was merely signaling its entrance into the war as a combatant, in aggressive and lethal support of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is bizarre. Iran didn't have to invent such a scenario; it was already an established fact.
Beyond training Iraqi troops, providing intelligence and shipping arms to Iraq, and facilitating the use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians, by 1987 the U.S. military was also helping Iraq "carry out long-range strikes against key Iranian targets, using U.S. ships as navigational aids," according to Barry Lando in his book, "Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush."
As one senior U.S. officer told ABC's Nightline, "We became forward air controllers for the Iraqi Air Force."
In July 1987, the CIA began a reconnaissance program, code-named Eager Glacier, that, as reported by John Barry in Newsweek some years later, "sent spy planes and helicopters flying over Iranian bases... Navy SEALs, manning Mark III patrol boats, were stationed on two giant floating barges, and special operations helicopter units first the Little Birds of the army's Delta Task Force 160, later joined by the specially built gunship Warriors of Task Force 118--roamed the gulf by night."
The purpose of this kind of American firepower in the Persian Gulf was clear. Lando writes, "Their mission was to destroy any Iranian gunboats they could find. Other small, swift American vessels, posing as commercial ships, lured Iranian naval vessels into international waters to attack them. The Americans often claimed they attacked the Iranian ships only after the Iranians first menaced neutral ships plying the Gulf. In some cases however, the neutral ships which the Americans claimed to be defending didn't even exist."
By August 1987, the U.S. Navy was conducting direct military attacks on Iranian aircraft and sea vessels. In early August, the Financial Times reported that "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." On September 23 of that year, the Washington Post reported, "U.S. Navy commandos yesterday boarded and captured the Iranian navy ship that was attacked by American helicopters Monday in the Persian Gulf," killing three Iranian sailors. An additional 26 Iranian crew members were detained. The same day, "the U.S. frigate involved in the attack fired warning shots at an Iranian hovercraft as it sped toward U.S. warships gathered near the disabled Iranian vessel, officials said."
A few weeks later, in early October, three Iranian ships were sunk by the U.S. Navy; later that month the Americans attacked two Iranian oil platforms. In April 1988, not only did a U.S. warship fire missiles at Iranian jets over the Persian Gulf, but two more oil platforms were destroyed and at least six Iranian ships were either crippled or sunk by American naval forces.
Fifteen years after these events, the International Criminal Court determined that "the actions of the United States of America against Iranian oil platforms on 19 October 1987 (Operation Nimble Archer) and 18 April 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis) cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America."
Then, on July 3, 1988, shortly after taking off from Bandar Abbas on the southern coast of Iran, the Dubai-bound Iran Air Flight 655 was blown out of the sky on the orders of U.S. Navy Commander William C. Rogers III of the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS guided missile cruiser, which had begun trolling the Persian Gulf in May of that year. The two surface-to-air missiles fired at the Iranian Airbus A300B2, a commercial flight that traveled along the same route every morning, obliterated the aircraft in broad daylight, killing all 290 civilians on board, including 66 children under the age of 12.
U.S. government whitewashing was swift.
In a statement issued soon after the attack, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the incident "a terrible human tragedy," but justified it as "a proper defensive action by the U.S.S. Vincennes" after "the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings."
Reporting on the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, an Associated Press report claimed on July 3, 1988 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." Iran disputed this version of events, insisting that plane attacked had been a civilian airliner and that nearly 300 civilians on board had been killed in the assault. AP noted, "U.S. Navy officials in the gulf denied the Iranian claim."
In reaction to Iranian statements, President Reagan reportedly quipped, "Well, I don't go by what the Iranians say, ever."
Following the attack on Flight 655, Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined what he called the "threatening flight profile" of the airplane the U.S. Navy ship had blown up. He told reporters that the Iranian plane had been "outside the prescribed commercial air corridor," that it "headed directly for Vincennes," that "there were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14" and that the plane was "decreasing in altitude as it neared the ship."
Crowe also maintained that the Vincennes, which, according to the Washington Post at the time, "was equipped with the most sophisticated radar and electronic battle gear in the Navy's surface arsenal," was "outside of Iranian territorial waters" when it fired at the Iranian aircraft.
"We do have some eyewitness reports that saw the vague shape of the aircraft when the missile hit," Crowe told reporters, "and it looked like it disintegrated." He also defended Commander Rogers' actions as "logical", saying, "The commanding officer conducted himself with circumspection and, considering the information that was available to him, followed his authorities and acted with good judgment at a very trying period and under very trying circumstances."
The following day, July 4, Reagan issued a report to Congress in which he stated the USS Vincennes had been "operating in international waters of the Persian Gulf" and that following "indications that approximately a dozen Iranian small boats were congregating to attack merchant shipping, the Vincennes sent a Mark III Lamps Helicopter on investigative patrol in international airspace to assess the situation." The helicopter, Reagan claimed, was fired upon and returned to the ship.
Reagan further declared, "The actions of U.S. forces in response to being attacked by Iranian small boats were taken in accordance with our inherent right of self-defense." These actions included the downing of Flight 655, which, he said, was "believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft."
In a press briefing on the White House lawn the same day, Reagan claimed that the Iranian airliner had been "lowering its altitude," indicating an aggressive posture, at the time it was shot down.
In a news brief, the New York Times held the American line. Attributing the destruction of the passenger plane as an "error," the paper noted that "U.S. officials said the cruiser Vincennes mistook the plane for a hostile aircraft about to attack." While reporting that "[t]he downing of the Iranian jetliner is evidence of how split-second decisions in modern warfare may be based on incomplete electronic information," the Times added that "Iranian passenger plane failed to observe many precautions deemed necessary in a war zone, according to Western aviation experts. A U.S. official said the plane had apparently violated all the requirements."
The next day, the New York Times editorialized on the annihilation of the civilian airplane, stating that "while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident. On present evidence, it's hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it," and adding that Vincennes captain Rogers "had little choice" but to blow a civilian airliner out of the sky. "It is hard to fault his decision to attack the suspect plane," the editors decided. The narrative of the events leading to the destruction of Flight 655 is taken directly from U.S. government talking points, with no independent investigation nor skepticism whatsoever. The Times concluded that Iran was to blame: "The onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft: avoid combat zones, fly high, acknowledge warnings."
At the time, a report by Norman Solomon in Extra! revealed how the U.S. "government's public relations spin quickly became the mass media's: A tragic mishap had occurred in the Persian Gulf, amid puzzling behavior of the passenger jet. Blaming the victim was standard fare, as reporters focused on the plight of U.S.S. Vincennes commander Capt. Will Rodgers III, whose picture appeared on tabloid covers (7/5/88) with bold headlines: "Captain's Anguish" (Newsday) and "Captain's Agony" (New York Post)."
Naturally, if the Iranian military had blown up a Pan Am flight taking off from Dubai, protestations of self-defense probably wouldn't find many sympathetic ears in the United States; fewer still would empathize with the personal trauma of the murderer who gave the order.
Ten days later, on July 13, 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard S. Williamson continued to insist that the Vincennes was "at the time of the incident, in international waters." The next day, speaking in defense of American actions before the United Nations Security Council, Vice President George H.W. Bush declared, "One thing is clear - that is that the USS Vincennes acted in self-defense."
Bush also maintained that the decision to shoot down the Flight 655 "occurred in the midst of a naval attacked initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and subsequently against the Vincennes when she came to the aid of the innocent ship in distress."
Iran's allegations that the warship was far too technologically advanced to make such a catastrophic mistake were dismissed by the American government. While on the presidential campaign trail the following month, Bush barked, "I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are!"
Nearly all of these claims made by U.S. military and government officials about why Flight 655 was fired upon were lies, and the subsequent investigation was effectively one big cover-up, reports in Newsweek and by Nightline later revealed.
There had been no merchant vessel in distress and no helicopter was ever dispatched from the Vincennes, let alone fired upon. The warnings by Vincennes radio operators had not been broadcast to air traffic control frequencies. There had been no visual confirmation of an approaching or attacking aircraft. Iran Air Flight 655 - with its nearly 300 passengers aboard - was well within its flight corridor, flying comfortably at 12,000 feet and steadily climbing. It had been in the air less than seven minutes. At the time it was hit, it was gradually turning away from where the Vincennes was located. It would have landed in Dubai about twenty minutes later. As John Barry reported in 1992:
Captain [Mohsen] Rezaian of Iran Air was calmly reporting to Bandar Abbas that he had reached his first checkpoint crossing the gulf. He heard none of the Vincennes's warnings. His four radio bands were taken up with air-control chatter. "Have a nice day," the tower radioed. "Thank you, good day," replied the pilot. Thirty seconds later, the first missile blew the left wing off his aircraft.There were other American naval vessels in the area at the time, none of which mistook the Iranian commercial airliner for a jet fighter, but were unable to act quickly enough to save Flight 655. "A few miles away, on the bridge of the Montgomery, crewmen gaped as a large wing of a commercial airliner, with an engine pod still attached, plummeted into the sea," Barry reported. "Aboard the USS Sides, 19 miles away, Captain [David] Carlson was told that his top radar man reckoned the plane had been a commercial airliner. Carlson almost vomited, he said later."
Vincennes commander Rogers was himself known to other naval officers as especially "trigger-happy." Captain Carlson, who commanded the Sides, a frigate in the same Surface Action Group as the Vincennes, later said that the Flight 655 disaster "marked the horrifying climax to Rogers' aggressiveness."
According to the subsequent government review of the downing of Flight 655, and particularly its Aegis targeting system and the "complex network of radar and computers" onboard the Vincennes, TIME magazine reported that "blame fell not on the machines but on the men who were operating them."
Nevertheless, not a single member of the crew of the Vincennes received official reprimand or opprobrium from the U.S. Navy or government. Moreover, in what can only be described as an act of staggering hubris, following the end of their deployment in 1989, all crew members aboard the Vincennes were awarded combat-action ribbons, while both Commander Rogers and Lieutenant Commander Scott Lustig, the ship's tactical coordinator for air warfare, were specifically granted the Navy's Legion of Merit for "meritorious service" and "heroic achievement."
Rogers was honored "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer… from April 1987 to May 1989," while Lustig received his citation for his "ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire," enabling him to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure."
Iran's only act of retaliation or retribution for the downing of Flight 655 was bringing forth a diplomatic and legal case for responsibility and restitution. Speaking to the UN Security Council shortly after the incident and addressing the international support for Iraq against Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said:
Our people will not be able easily to forget or forgive this series of injustices, which have cost dearly in human and financial terms in the course of the continuation and expansion of the war. But the tragedy of the attack on a civilian airliner and the horrible killing of innocent children and their mothers have so much affected public opinion among our people, as well as world public opinion, that we felt obliged to bring the carnage and its causes and consequences before the judgement of the international community for the sake of humanity and to safeguard international law.Velayati then proceeded to detail the "true and substantiated story of a painful and unfortunate tragedy," by which he systematically debunked each and every one of the American claims regarding the events leading to the downing of Flight 655.
Vice President Bush spoke next. He accused Iran of levying "reckless, intemperate charges against my country" and spoke of the "legal right" of the United States "to help ensure the unimpeded flow of oil and to keep neutral commerce moving in the face of a very real threat to innocent shipping." He also laid the blame for the tragedy on Iran itself, saying, "Iranian authorities failed to divert Iran Air 655 from the combat area. They allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in active battle. That was irresponsible and a tragic error."
"The United States has never willfully acted to endanger innocent civilians, nor will it ever do so," Bush insisted, and announced that the United States "will continue to defend our interests and support our friends, while remaining steadfastly neutral in the war."
"Our naval presence is welcomed by peaceful nations," Bush said. "It is a threat to no one."
The International Court of Justice eventually awarded the victims of the attack $61 million in compensation for unwarranted loss of life. The U.S government has still never officially apologized to the Iranian people for this heinous crime.
Last year, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in commemoration of the tragedy. "This inhumane crime is clear proof of the innocence of the Iranian nation," it read, "and (provides) clear evidence that the United States is not committed to any international legal and ethical principles and norms, and (it) will remain in the historical memory of the Iranian nation."
The Washington Post's Max Fisher concludes his column, writing, "Americans might not know about Flight 655. But Iranians surely do -- they can hardly forget about it."
While he - and TIME's Michael Crowley - should be commended for reminding (or informing) their readership about the events of July 3, 1988 and its implications today, they should also remember that telling only part of the story - and allowing American aggression, dishonesty and denial to be dismissed uncritically as an "accident" - does a great disservice to the truth.
The 290 innocent victims deserve better.
October 17, 2013 - Following up on his piece about Flight 655, Max Fisher has posted a lengthy excerpt from a forthcoming book by Rutgers professor Toby Craig Jones, "America's Oil Wars," in which he "argues that the incident is a symbol and product of the U.S. strategy in the Gulf, where militarization and energy policies can often blur."
Jones' analysis is excellent, addressing as it does both American culpability for the attack and its subsequent cover-up. While in the aftermath of the downing of Flight 655 U.S. officials insisted that Iran "must share some responsibility for this tragedy," Jones explains, "It was the Vincennes, not the Iranian gunboats that provoked the clash between them. Rogers had the Vincennes pursue the gunboats into Iranian sovereign waters, from which it launched the two missiles that felled Flight 655."
David Carlson, who commanded the cruiser USS Sides, and was in supporting role of and less than 20 nautical miles from Vincennes when it launched its attack, denied that the Iranians had been especially aggressive. Carlson later remarked that there “was no coordinated attack involving” the Iranian gunboats. He even challenged the prevailing assumption that the Iranian posture in the Gulf was threatening more generally. He reflected, “my experience was that the conduct of the Iranian military forces in the month preceding the incident was pointedly non-threatening.” While Carlson conceded that he thought the flight might have been an F-14 at the time, several of his crew rightly identified it as a civilian aircraft. Either way, Carlson never believed Flight 655 posed a risk and watched in horror as the Vincennes launched its missiles.
In disputing more apologetic accounts that sought to justify the Vincennes’s choices, the Sides’ commander offered a much less flattering analysis. “Having watched the performance of the Vincennes for a month before the incident,” he recalled that his “impression was clearly that an atmosphere of restraint was not her strong suit.” Revealing that his colleagues had taken to calling the Vincennes “Robo Cruiser” well before July 3, Carlson suggested that his “guess was that the crew of the Vincennes felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis [the ship’s new computerized system] ... and that they hankered for an opportunity to show their stuff.”Jones continues to explain how American involvement in the Iran-Iraq War and, specifically, its destruction of Flight 655 "marked a critical moment in the late 20th century histories of the Gulf and to the shifting relationship between energy, the global political economy, and modern war."
"By the summer of 1988," Jones writes, "the U.S. Navy was patrolling the Gulf, shepherding oil tankers as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz, had established an elaborate anti-Iranian surveillance and policing network, and was trading shots with the Iranian Navy. Little reported at the time, just months before the July attack the U.S. staged its largest Naval confrontation since World War II against Iran. American antagonisms and work to thwart Iranian mobility in the Gulf have remained in place ever since."
Furthermore, he notes, "The downing of Flight 655 was rooted in a shifting politics around energy, and, in the making of a regional order in the 1980s in which 'energy' and 'war' became increasingly interdependent. The argument here is that the expansion of both the American presence and its use of violence resulted in the fundamental transformation of the relationship between energy and war, one in which the distinction between them was erased."
Jones highlights remarks made in 1987 by Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and the Reagan administration's most visible spokesperson for its military policy in the Gulf, in prepared testimony before Congress, during which he said that "ready access to Gulf oil is critical to the economic well-being of the West," and continued to state that the Middle East "is strategically important to the United States. We would suffer a major strategic defeat should a power hostile to the United States sharply increase its power and influence in the region... The administration like its predecessors, is committed to maintaining the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and supporting the individual and collective self-defense of the Arab Gulf states."
Ensuring the flow of oil, or stated otherwise, providing security for oil, was and remains a central tenant of the American case for its role in the Gulf. But the now-common idea of "energy security" is an articulation that obscures more than it reveals. The neat division of energy and security into related but still separate categories misses the more important ways in which the two have become inextricably connected, physically and technologically built into one another.
In creating a new techno-political order around energy and war starting in the mid-1980s, the United States and its allies engaged in a struggle to make and unmake space and movement in the Gulf, to create both a system of surveillance and control that privileged themselves as well as in a struggle to refashion the political geography of the region. The fluidity of the Gulf, the fact that both the seascape and the objects moving on it were always in motion, gave rise to a corresponding fluidity in the techno-political and geopolitical order in the region. The system was leaky and uncertain and mobility both on the sea and in the air was precarious. The result was the system was, according to those who sought to control, always in crisis and, thus, always at war. It has been ever since.Such policies had been articulated for years by American officials. While Jones identifies such a shift in focus as occurring in the mid-1980s, it should be remembered that, during his 1980 State of the Union address, Reagan's predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, declared, "Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
It is clear that, for decades now, the United States had considered the entire planet its backyard, the Persian Gulf its bathtub: American property free of any foreign sovereignty or international law, in which the U.S. military may act at will and with impunity.
It is indeed admirable that Fisher has allowed this context to appear on his Washington Post blog, especially in light of his previous post, which did little to illuminate the full scope of this tragedy and the American hubris behind it.