As Iran finds itself in a tight corner domestically and internationally over its shooting down of a civilian aircraft after the Ukraine International Airlines flight took off from the Tehran Airport, killing all 176 on board, this incident has allowed the USA to claim the moral high ground. The Iranian regime, after trying to deny the act, soon accepted that it was an accidental downing as it targeted a US military base in Iraq with ballistic surface-to-air missiles, and offered its apologies.
However, this is not the first civilian plane crash in the decades’ long US-Iran hostility. It is important to go down the pages of history and look back at the time when the US shot down an Iranian passenger plane on Iranian territorial waters killing all 290 on board. At the time, Ronald Reagan had regretted the attack but never thoroughly apologised. The uncanny, disconcerting parallel proves that there never were any holy cows in the US-Iran war.
In 1988, the Iran-Iraq war was in the final stages and things took an ugly turn when the US Navy shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft on Iranian territorial waters. Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board were killed. The jet was hit while flying over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, along the flight’s usual route, shortly after departing Bandar Abbas International Airport, the flight’s stopover location.
The reason for the shoot-down has been disputed between the governments of the two countries. According to the United States government, the crew of USS Vincennes had incorrectly identified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat, a U.S.-made jet fighter that had been part of the Iranian Air Force inventory since the 1970s. While the F-14s had been supplied to Iran in an air-to-air configuration, the crew of the guided-missile cruiser had been briefed that the Iranian F-14s were equipped with air-to-ground ordnance. Vincennes had made ten attempts to contact the aircraft on both military and civilian radio frequencies but had received no response. According to the Iranian government, the cruiser negligently shot down the aircraft, which was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian aircraft, and not Mode II as used by Iranian military aircraft. The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. Some analysts blamed the captain of Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, for overly aggressive behaviour in a tense and dangerous environment.
In the days immediately following the incident, US President Ronald Reagan issued a written diplomatic note to the Iranian government, expressing deep regret. However, the United States continued to insist that the Vincennes was acting in self-defence in international waters.
Just like Iran, the USA initially refused to go acknowledge that it had inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft and after irrefutable proof emerged, Pentagon finally admitted its mistake. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder “squawk” code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained radio contact in English with appropriate air traffic control facilities which directly contradicted the USA’s initial claims that the airline was transmitting Iranian Military code and hence, it was compelled to shoot down the plane. To further make things matter worse for the US, Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, as admitted by the U.S. government in legal briefs and publicly by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, on Nightline.
While the then US President Reagan had regretted the incident but never formally apologised or acknowledged any wrongdoing with the George H.W. Bush the then-vice president of the United States in the Reagan administration, defended his country at the United Nations by arguing that the U.S. attack and refused to apologise by claiming that since the incident was wartime incident, the crew of Vincennes had acted appropriately to the situation.
Despite the mistakes made in the downing of the plane, the men of USS Vincennes were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. The air-warfare coordinator on duty received the Navy Commendation Medal, but The Washington Post reported in 1990 that the awards were for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and his actions relating to the surface engagement with Iranian gunboats. In 1990, Rogers was awarded the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer from April 1987 to May 1989.” The award was given for his service as the commanding officer of Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.
The USA has the incessant urge to control Iran’s government thanks to its decades’ long lust for the Strait of Hormuz which is a major chokepoint for oil trade. The Middle East’s crude oil and natural gas flow through the narrow sea conduit to international markets, making it the world’s most critical transportation. The waterway has always been a bone of contention between the USA and Iran and incidents such as Iran’s seizure of a British tanker and attacks on ships in 2019 — can whipsaw energy prices and send shipping and insurance rates rocketing are a regular occurrence. In the face of mounting US sanctions, Iran on multiple occasions has threatened to close down the waterway prompting the US and the UK to ramp up their military presence in the crucial waterway.
The USA over the years has mastered the art of throwing out regimes in West Asia under the garb of “democracy” thus sparking civil wars wherein Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan stand as bright examples of the country’s misadventures in the region. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the USA overthrew Iran’s last democratic leader. Mohammad Mosaddeq is a name that evokes strong emotions in the average Iranian. A charismatic French- and Swiss-educated lawyer from an aristocratic family, Mosaddeq served two terms as prime minister of Iran from 1951, when he led the movement to nationalize the British-controlled Iranian oil industry, until August 1953, when his government was toppled by a royalist military coup backed by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
Mossadeq till date remains the symbol of democracy in Iran who steadfastly protected Iran’s interests ultimately paid the price for it. His move to nationalise the British controlled Iranian oil industry threatened to wipe out British presence in the Middle East and the West acted swiftly to topple a democratically elected leader and Iran for no fault of its suddenly found itself under the throngs of dictatorship and till date remains to be under it. The CIA’s covert operation to topple Mosaddeq, codenamed TPAJAX, was one of the worst-kept secrets of the Cold War. Just days after the coup, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, Loy Henderson, reported to Washington a “widespread” rumour in Tehran that the United States was behind the fall of Mosaddeq. Associates of Iran’s new post-coup prime minister, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, had reportedly been saying that Iran was “deeply indebted to [the] Americans” for the success of their efforts.
A CIA team led by Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, organized the military units that provided muscle and backbone for the coup. However, in 1979, The US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, was forced to leave the country following months of demonstrations and strikes against his rule by secular and religious opponents. Two weeks later, Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returns from exile. Following a referendum, the Islamic Republic of Iran is proclaimed on 1 April.
This was the time when the USA permanently lost Iran to the Islamic revolution which gave an extremist streak to Iranian governance and lifestyle. The Iranian regime was always hostile towards the USA and Israel and explicitly vowed to remove Israel from the map of the world.
Fast forward to 2020, the regime hasn’t changed but another civilian plane has been downed inadvertently. There are enough signs that the US will yet again push for a regime change in Iran to pursue its interests thus plunging Iran into yet another crisis. In the aftermath of the killing of Soleimani, Iran might be perceived as the bad guy but the USA is no holy cow.