To tell the story of Iran Air flight 655, we have to go back almost a decade to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
On 22 September the following year, fearful that the Revolution would prompt insurgency among its Shia majority, Iraq invaded Iran via air and land. Hostilities continued until 20 August 1988, claiming the lives of about one million people. The eight-year conflict was widely seen in Iran as a war against not only Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but also his Western allies including the United States.
During the war, the U.S. Navy, anxious to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers registered under the U.S. flag, had established a significant presence in the Persian Gulf. On 3 July 1988, an American guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, became involved in a typical engagement with small Iranian gunboats in the Straits of Hormuz.
Meanwhile, in Bandar Abbas on the southern coast of Iran, the captain and crew of Flight 655 were gathered at Bandar Abbas airfield, preparing for the second leg of their routine 150-mile flight over the Persian Gulf to Dubai. They took off at 10:17 a.m., anticipating a straightforward 28-minute flight through commercial air corridor Amber 59, a twenty-mile-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. As directed by the Bandar Abbas control tower, the experienced crew switched on the plane’s transponder, identifying it as a civilian aircraft, and climbed to a cruise altitude of 14,000 feet.
What happened next has been the subject of furious controversy and debate ever since. Flight 655 appeared on the Vincennes’s radar and, in a state of heightened battle alertness, the crew on the bridge attempted to contact the aircraft. Then, receiving no acknowledgement (and taking this to be a sign of hostile intent), they took a closer look at the flight profile of the aircraft and concluded that it was similar to that of an F-14A Tomcat during an attack run. At 10:24 a.m., they fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, breaking the Airbus in two and killing all 290 passengers and crew members. The whole flight had taken less than seven minutes.
It was not until later in the day that the crew of the Vincennes learned that what they had shot down was not an Iranian fighter jet, but a civil aircraft carrying hundreds of holidaymakers. The black box flight recorders were never found, so it was not possible to verify the precise flight profile or determine whether or not the American challenges had been received.
Interpreting the “attack” as a signal that the United States had openly entered the war on Iraq’s side (and concerned about Iraq’s increased use of chemical weapons), Tehran felt compelled to accept a United Nations ceasefire two months later.
Although there have been expressions of regret over the loss of human life, the U.S. government has never admitted any responsibility for the tragedy and has never apologised. Indeed, the U.S. Navy continues to blame Iranian hostile actions for the incident.
Mystifyingly, the crew of the Vincennes were all awarded combat-action ribbons. Commander Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, won the navy’s Commendation Medal for “heroic achievement”, his “ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire” having enabled him to “quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.” In 1990, Captain William Rogers III was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service as the commanding officer of the Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655.
Nevertheless, America and her allies may have paid a heavy price for the blunder – the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie may well have been payback for the shooting down of Flight 655.