American Crime

Case #17: Mass Murder in the Skies Over Iran:
The Shoot-Down of Passenger Flight 655… by the U.S. Navy

| revcom.us

 

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

American Crime

See all the articles in this series.

THE CRIMES

At 9:53 on the morning of July 3, 1988, Captain Mohsen Rezaian was piloting Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian airliner on a routine flight from Bandar Abbas, 140 miles across the Persian Gulf to Dubai, normally a 28-minute flight. 290 people were aboard the plane.

Suddenly, without warning, two surface-to-air missiles launched from the U.S. warship Vincennes, 18 miles away, ripped apart his plane which then crashed into the Gulf. All aboard were killed, though only about 200 bodies could be recovered.

At the time, Iran had been at war with Iraq for nearly eight years.

In 1984, Iraq launched its first attack on Iranian oil facilities and shipping, and in 1987, Iran responded by targeting the oil tankers of Kuwait—which was supporting Iraq’s war—with mines. The U.S. dispatched 42 U.S. warships to escort re-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers and ostensibly to protect neutral shipping (which did face threats from both belligerents). In late May 1988, the naval cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis radar system had been sent into the Gulf, supposedly to protect against Iranian anti-ship missiles.

A little over a month later, it shot down Iran Air 655. Sixty-six children under 12, 156 men, and 66 women were killed. Most all were Iranians, but there were also Arabs, Koreans, and Japanese people among the dead.

One Iranian businessman was waiting to greet his family in Dubai. All were killed—his wife, her brother, and their eight children. When he heard the news, “The man just went out of his mind, going from pillar to post and banging his head,” a witness reported. To this day, there are ceremonies in Iran in memory of those killed on July 3, 1988.

THE ALIBI

The U.S. immediately blamed Iran for the disaster. On July 5, the New York Times ran an editorial that called on readers to see things from the perspective of the Vincennes’ captain, Will Rogers. The editorial was titled “In Captain Rogers’s Shoes,” and sketched the following scene:

The [Vincennes] was not only in a combat zone; but at that very moment was engaged in action against Iranian gunboats making high-speed runs against it. Then Captain Rogers’s radar operators reported an aircraft heading toward the ship and descending. The plane, which had taken off from Iranian territory, was reportedly flying five miles outside the civilian air corridor and failed to answer three warnings over the civilian distress channel that all aircraft are supposed to monitor. The radar operators apparently had indications, which the Navy refuses to discuss, that the plane was a powerful F-14 jet.... Captain Rogers already had a battle on his hands. Barring surprising findings, it is hard to fault his decision to attack the suspect plane.

But the Times had no trouble finding fault with the dead pilot and with Iran, arguing that in the “episode”:

... blame may lie with the Iran Air pilot for failing to acknowledge the ship’s warnings and flying outside the civilian corridor. Iran, too, may bear responsibility for failing to warn civilian planes away from the combat zone of an action it had initiated.

And the Times’ editorial concluded:

The present rules of engagement allow a captain to fire first in defense of his ship. ...the onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft: avoid combat zones, fly high, acknowledge warnings. Better still, no one would have to be in Captain Rogers’s shoes in the first place. That prospect turns on Teheran’s willingness to bring an end to its futile eight-year war with Iraq.

The Times’ editorial was echoed by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who told the UN that:

[The shooting down of Flight 655] occurred in the midst of a naval attack initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and, subsequently, against the Vincennes when it came to the aid of the innocent ship in distress.

Despite these hostilities, Iranian authorities failed to divert Iran Air 655 from the area. They allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in battle. That was irresponsible and a tragic error.

The information available to Captain Will Rogers, the captain of the Vincennes, indicated that an Iranian military aircraft was approaching his ship with hostile intentions. After seven unanswered warnings, he did what he had to do to protect his ship and the lives of his crew. As a military commander, his first duty and responsibility is to protect his men and his ship.1

LIE UPON LIE

Virtually every word of the U.S. version of events was false, and by the time Bush gave his UN speech, the U.S. knew it. As is brought out and documented in meticulous detail in “Vincennes: A Case Study,” (from the pro-military U.S. Naval Institute) here is the truth:

  • The Vincennes (a heavily armed U.S. cruiser, almost two football fields long) was not “under attack” by small Iranian patrol boats; in fact, the Vincennes had aggressively harassed and opened fire on these vastly outgunned Iranian vessels whose return fire couldn’t even reach the Vincennes.
  • The Vincennes was not in international waters. When the Iranian boats came under attack they fled back into Iranian territorial waters, and the Vincennes followed them there.
  • Iran Air Flight 655 was not flying outside civilian air corridors, it was well within them on its normal flight course. It was over Iranian territory. And it was not “diving” towards the Vincennes—in fact it was ascending, and was 18 miles from the ship when it was shot down.
  • Flight 655 almost certainly did not “ignore” U.S. warnings; the Vincennes was attempting (or pretending to attempt) to communicate on military and civilian emergency frequencies, but did not attempt to reach it on the air traffic control frequencies that a civilian airliner en route to a nearby airport would logically be tuned in to.
  • It was not true, as the Vincennes crew claimed, that Flight 655 was “squawking” (sending out signals) on military channels—in fact the Vincennes’ own data showed that it was squawking only on civilian channels.2
  • The Vincennes captain claims he thought he was under attack by an F-14. So somehow, the ship’s advanced radar system was unable to distinguish between a small and fast fighter plane and the Iranian Airbus, which is almost three times as large as an F-14 and much slower. The captain of the S.S. Sides, a nearby warship that shared intelligence data with the Vincennes, told his officers that “[the plane is] climbing. He’s slow. I don’t see any radar emissions... So, ‘non-threat.’” Immediately after this, the Sides’ officers heard Rogers announcing to naval headquarters his intention to shoot the plane down. When he did, the Sides’ electronic specialists exclaimed, “He shot down COMAIR [a commercial aircraft].”

THE ACTUAL MOTIVE

The United States has a long and bloody history of seeking to dominate and oppress Iran (one of the world’s largest oil producers).3 In September 1980, the U.S. gave the green light to Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) to invade Iran in order to weaken and contain Iran’s new Islamic Republic.

During the initial stages of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. provided or facilitated military aid to Iraq—including poison gas that Iraq used to kill thousands of Iranian troops as well as Kurdish civilians. When Iraq seemed to be close to winning, the U.S. provided aid to Iran. (The U.S. goal was to protract the war and weaken both countries.) There were 262,000 to 367,000 Iranians and 105,000 Iraqis killed, plus an estimated 700,000 injured or wounded on both sides.4

But by 1987, the war was destabilizing the whole region, and Iran was getting the upper hand, threatening U.S. allies and interests in the region, so the U.S. sought to bring it to an end by moving decisively against Iran. The U.S. warships were sent to the Gulf not only to protect Kuwaiti tankers but also to pressure Iran. Tensions escalated on April 14, 1988, when the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine and nearly sunk. Four days later, on April 18, with U.S. backing (and with the use of sarin gas), Iraq seized back the strategic Fao (al-Faw) Peninsula. That same day, U.S. forces launched Operation Praying Mantis, attacking the Iranian navy inside Iranian territorial waters, destroying or severely damaging half of Iran’s navy.5

It was clear that when the Vincennes arrived in the Gulf in May 1988, it was “on a mission” to draw blood, to carry out aggressive military action that had nothing to do with its alleged function of providing radar protection for the U.S. fleet.

It is possible that Rogers did not realize the plane he was shooting down was a passenger jet, but it is certain that like a swaggering pig rolling through a Black neighborhood spreading terror, it really wasn’t very important to him to make the assessment. His was a “shoot first, ask questions later” orientation. It is also possible that the U.S. deliberately shot down a civilian airliner to send a chilling, Mafia-like message to Iran.

In either case, and because at key points in the incident Rogers checked in with and got approval from naval headquarters in Bahrain, it’s clear his actions were in line with and served the strategic orientation of the U.S. military at that point: to bully and bloody Iran in order to force them to agree to a ceasefire in the war with Iraq. Taken together with the U.S. destruction of half the Iranian navy, and the U.S.-backed seizure by Iraq of the Fao Peninsula, the shootdown of Flight 655 was taken by Iran as a signal of U.S. ruthlessness and a message that things would only go from bad to worse if they didn’t abide by U.S. demands to agree to end the war.

Sixteen days after Flight 655 was downed, Iran accepted the UN ceasefire that the U.S. had been pressuring it to agree to.

THE CRIMINALS

President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who were strategically in charge of the U.S. role in the Iran-Iraq War, and “set the tone” (whether or not they gave specific orders) in which war crimes like the shoot-down of Flight 655 could take place. Reagan called it a “terrible tragedy” (a statement “Aimed at Saving U.S. Policy in the Gulf,” according to the Washington Post), but overall he and Bush in particular brazenly defended and justified this crime.

The U.S. Naval Command (Joint Task Force in the Middle East) in Bahrain, which oversaw the Vincennes operations and green-lighted them at key points. And, two years after the incident, President George H.W. Bush commended Captain Rogers for his actions and awarded him the Legion of Merit—the U.S. military’s second-highest peacetime medal.

While the commendation did not mention shooting down Flight 655, it covered the period in which it happened, and Rogers was specifically praised for his “dynamic leadership, logical judgment and unexcelled devotion to duty” in the attack on Iranian boats that led up to and provided justification for shooting down the plane. Rogers’ weapons and combat systems officer, Lt. Commander Lustig, also received a medal for the attack on the Iranian boats, which was described as a “heroic achievement.” Both Rogers and Lustig remained in the military and were given important posts.

Not one member of the Vincennes crew was ever disciplined in any way for the mass murder. In fact, the whole crew was awarded Combat Action Ribbons.

Captain Rogers, who made the decision to shoot down the plane, lied about what happened afterwards, and never expressed the slightest remorse.

The officers and crew of the Vincennes, who, even if they were not making command decisions, carried out immoral orders and participated in the lies and coverup once the slaughter was over.

The U.S. media (with special “honors” to the New York Times), which shamelessly promoted the lies the U.S. military told to justify its crimes, and was a mouthpiece for both bullying Iran and rousing the U.S. population—especially progressives and liberals—to support the U.S. attacks on it.


1. Excerpts for Vice President George Bush’s Remarks to U.N. Security Council, July 14, 1988. [back]

2. “The data from USS Vincennes' tapes, information from USS Sides and reliable intelligence information corroborate the fact that TN 4131 was on a normal commercial air flight plan profile … squawking Mode III 6760, on a continuous ascent in altitude from take-off at Bandar Abbas to shoot down.”, See Vincennes: A Case Study, by Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), in Proceedings, Vol 119/8/1,086, August, 1993, published by U.S. Naval Institute. [back]

3. See American Crime, Case #98: 1953 CIA Coup in Iran: Torture and Repression—Made in the USA, revcom.us, May 16, 2016. [back]

4. The Republican Party Is Fascist; The Democratic Party Is Also a Machine of Massive War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, “Fueling the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988,” revcom.us, January 7, 2019. [back]

5. Vincennes: A Case Study, Ibid. [back]

 

Arrow is flight path of 655 and red 'explosion' symbol is where plane was destroyed by rocket attack.

Iranians carrying coffins in the streets of Tehran of the victims of the U.S. airstrike against the Iranian commercial flight 655. (Photo: AP)

Iranians throwing flowers in the Persian Gulf in annual commemoration of the 290 people killed when the U.S. shot down the commercial aircraft 655.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

“I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Then-VP George H.W. Bush, August 2, 1988 speech while campaigning for the presidency

 

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