Twenty-six years ago today, on July 3, 1988, a tragic incident occurred in the skies over the Strait of Hormuz, which separates Iran from various Arab states on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Iran Air Flight 655, a short shuttle flight from Tehran to Dubai, took off at 10:17 AM local time for what should have been a flight lasting not even half an hour. Seven minutes later two surface-to-air missiles, fired by the U.S. Navy Aegis missile cruiser USS Vincennes, struck the airplane. It exploded and its remains–including the bodies of all 290 people on board–fell into the Persian Gulf. Moments later, Navy controllers aboard the Vincennes realized they had made a terrible mistake.
The downing of Flight 655 itself was fairly simple, but took place against a horrendously complex set of geopolitical circumstances. At the time the Iran-Iraq War, which had been going on since 1980, was still raging fiercely. This war, probably the single most destructive war of the 20th century excluding the two world wars, began to pull in other powers, specifically Kuwait, a pro-Western Arab emirate that exported a lot of oil through the Gulf and whose tankers were constantly under fire from Iraqi and Iranian military forces. To ameliorate this problem, the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan “reflagged” the Kuwaiti tankers in 1987, essentially placing them temporarily under U.S. jurisdiction, so firing on them by Iraq or Iran would be an act of war against the United States. This ratcheted up tensions in the region, as did the deployment of U.S. Navy assets in the Gulf, of which the Vincennes was one. Furthermore, a few months before, a U.S. ship was struck by a missile fired from an Iraqi plane. To borrow a quote from Winston Churchill about another war, “the vials of wrath were full.”
Still, the commander and men aboard the Vincennes made a lot of mistakes that hot July morning. The ship was under attack by several Iranian gunboats at the time. When controllers saw on their radar screen a blip coming toward the ship in a particular flight pattern, they thought it resembled an Iranian F-14, perhaps coming to support the gunboats’ attack. The airport from which Flight 655 departed handled both military and civilian traffic. The plane’s transponder, however, was transmitting on a civilian channel. Furthermore, the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters at the time, pursuing the gunboats, which exceeded the mission parameters and violated international law. Investigations after the incident laid some blame at the feet of the captain, Will Rogers III, who was chided for being “overly aggressive” and spoiling for a fight with the Iranians.
U.S. Navy controllers aboard the USS Vincennes may have been psychologically disposed toward seeing Flight 655 as a military threat. This helps explain the incident, but does not justify it.
Alas, in the fire control room at the time of the incident, there doesn’t seem to have been much thought given to the possibility that the menacing blip on the screen was a civilian airliner, despite the fact that their instruments and indicators told them it was. Twelve years after the disaster the U.S. government issued a statement claiming that what might have happened was a psychological condition known as “scenario fulfillment”–that the actions taken during a training scenario simulating an attack by enemy aircraft become automatically projected into a real situation that resembles it, with indicators of its unreality ignored in the effort to carry out one’s mission. In simpler language, the Navy controllers were trained to shoot back if attacked from the air; their training predisposed them to recognize an approaching aircraft as a threat, rather than evaluate what it really was.
The disaster poisoned U.S.-Iranian relations for years to come–as if they could get much worse than they’d been since 1979, when Iran seized 53 Americans and held them hostage for more than a year, a deep trauma to the American psyche. But certainly the tragedy of Flight 655 was a deep trauma to the Iranian people, whose innocent citizens were carelessly destroyed in a mistaken act of war. The U.S. paid reparations to Iran as part of a settlement in 1996, but the tragedy of that day has gone down indelibly in the long ledger of grievances that the Islamic Republic of Iran holds against its “Great Satan” enemy, the United States. I believe these grievances can and should be settled peacefully. The better angels of our nature (to use Lincoln’s words) were notably absent on the morning of July 3, 1988, but they need not always be.