By Mojtaba Ahmadi*
On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian airliner with 290 passengers and crew on board left Tehran for Dubai; it never arrived at its destination.
Flight 655 had a stopover at Bandar Abbas, a beautiful costal city on Iran’s Persian Gulf. On that hot summer day, after a delay of about 27 minutes, veteran pilot Captain Mohsen Rezaian departed Bandar Abbas airport at 10:17 in the morning with Airbus A300B2 of Flight 655, heading towards Dubai. The flight would have arrived at the airport in Dubai in 28 minutes, had a terrible human tragedy not occurred.
The Iranian civilian airliner was transmitting the correct transponder "squawk" code typical of a civilian aircraft, while maintaining radio contact in English with appropriate air traffic control facilities. The same morning, the USS Vincennes, a US Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser equipped with the Aegis combat system, was passing through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. The cruiser was commanded to serve the interests of the United States Navy in the Persian Gulf from July 1985 to June 2005.
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. It was only thirty seconds later, when the first missile blew the left wing off his aircraft (1).
Feeling the need to prove the viability of Aegis (the sophisticated anti-aircraft system on the cruiser), the Vincennes shot down the Iranian civilian airbus, even though it had clearly been identified as a civilian aircraft and had transmitted the correct transponder, flying in the correct route. The 290 innocent passengers and crew, including 66 children, were all killed (2).
U.S. Navy Capt. Will C. Rogers III, the captain of the USS Vincennes was commanded to stay in a position where the cruiser could monitor the movement of the Iranian gunboats. While the Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655, on the pretext of it being "four miles outside of the standard commercial flight path from Bandar Abbas airport in Iran to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, records show that the Vincennes was actually inside of Iran's territorial waters, not forty miles south (where the ship had been ordered by fleet headquarters to stay) as Rogers and government reports had claimed” (3). Moreover, “Flight 655 was directly inside of its commercial flight path, not four miles outside of it--as Rogers and the Vincennes crew also claimed.” (3)
David Carlson, who at the time was the commander of a nearby U.S. vessel, wrote in the U.S. Naval Proceedings that he “wondered aloud in disbelief” as the Vincennes announced her intentions to attack what was clearly a civilian aircraft (2). A skipper of the frigate USS Sides, which monitored the jet's downing, also said "My guess was that the crew of the Vincennes felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis in the Persian Gulf, and that they hankered for an opportunity to show their stuff" (4).
“Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly refuted charges of a cover-up on the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus civilian airliner by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes in 1988, during testimony before the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee July 21” (5).
Did the U.S. ever apologize?
George H.W. Bush, then Vice President of the United States, said during a presidential campaign on August 2, 1988 that “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” (6).
Two years after the tragic incident, the same captain (from the Vincennes) was awarded the Legion of Merit, a high award, given “on the basis of unambiguous evidence and sterling performance, without a blotch of tarnish” (7).
The U.S. navy then declared that "the President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Legion of Merit to Capt. Will C. Rogers III, U.S. Navy, for service as set forth in the following citation:
"For exceptionally . . . outstanding service as commanding officer, USS Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989 . . .During the course of Persian Gulf operations, Capt. Rogers' tactical skills and calm direction enabled his crew to successfully engage seven heavily armed, high-speed Iranian surface craft attacking Vincennes. . . . As a result, five craft were destroyed and two retreated. . . . Capt. Rogers' dynamic leadership, logical judgment and unexcelled devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service" (7).
Rogers was also granted a medal “for heroic achievement as air warfare coordinator in USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988. . . . Throughout, he maintained an exceptionally smooth flow of information . . . and rapidly assimilated threat data to provide clear, concise flow of information to commanding officer and higher authority. As a result . . . (he) was able to precisely complete the firing procedure. . . .” (7).
The government of the United States refused to apologize or even take responsibility for the incident, offering instead blatantly incorrect and misleading so-called details of the incident in an attempt to shift blame onto Iran. An example of one such instance occurred on July 3, at the first Pentagon press conference on the attack. Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Flight 655 had been flying at 9,000 feet and descending at a “high speed” of 450 knots, “headed directly” for the Vincennes, while, according to the Aug. 19 report by Rear Admiral William Fogarty of U.S. Central Command (based on computer tapes found inside the ship’s combat information center), the plane was “ascending through 12,000 feet” at the much slower speed of 380 knots. “At no time” did the Airbus “actually descend in altitude” (8).
Ultimately, UN Security Council Resolution 616 was passed, which expressed "deep distress" over the downing and "profound regret" for the loss of life (9).
It was not until February 22, 1996, that the United States finally agreed to pay Iran and the victims of Flight 655 “US$ 61.8 million in compensation to discontinue a case brought by Iran against the US in the International Court of Justice in 1989.”
However, the very compensation was also categorized as being on an "ex gratia" basis and the US never accepted any responsibility for the tragedy. (10)
*Mojtaba Ahmadi is a senior M.A. student at the Allameh Tabatabai University. As a student in history he has trained to perform highly in different fields such as journalism, social media and scenario writing.
1. Shirazi, N. (2013). The Crying of Flight 655: The Washington Post and the Whitewashing of a War Crime. Retrieved from Wide Asleep in America: http://www.wideasleepinamerica.com/2013/10/the-crying-of-flight-655.html
2. Chomsky, N. (2014). Outrage. Retrieved from Z Magazine: http://zcomm.org/zmagazine/outrage/
3. Iran Air Shot Down - July 3, 1988. Retrieved from History: https://web.archive.org/web/20070518142130/http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=1271&display_order=3&mini_id=1278
4. Moore, M. (1990). 2 Vincennes Officers Get Medals;Citations Do Not Mention Downing of Iranian Airliner That Killed 290. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/doc/307226296.html
5. Crowe Refutes ABC/Newsweek Charges on Vincennes. (1992, July 22). Retrieved from https://fas.org/news/iran/1992/920722-236124.htm
6. Battistella, E. (2011, December 6). When America Apologizes (or Doesn’t) for Its Actions. Retrieved from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/opinion/when-america-apologizes-or-doesnt-for-its-actions.html?_r=0
7. EVANS, D. (1990). Vincennes Medals Cheapen Awards For Heroism. Retrieved from Daily Press: http://articles.dailypress.com/1990-04-15/news/9004110407_1_uss-vincennes-iranian-airbus-rogers
8. Kaplan, F. (2014). America’s Flight 17. Retrieved from Slate: http://goo.gl/ldjY1I
9. Ebrahimpour, T. (2008). No apologies for downing Flight 655. Retrieved from Press TV: http://edition.presstv.ir/detail/62190.html
10. Iran Air Flight 655: US 1988 Attack on Iranian Passenger Jet. (2015). Retrieved from Iran Review: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran_Air_Flight_655.htm