On July 3, 1988, the United States killed 290 innocent Iranian civilians when it shot down Iran Air Flight 655—a tragic event that is not mentioned in history textbooks in school, and that is widely ignored in the context of current relations between the U.S. and Iran.
The scheduled flight was traveling from Tehran to Dubai, and there were 66 children on board, all of whom were killed, as no passengers or crew members survived the attack. The plane was shot down by the USS Vincennes, which was operating within Iranian territorial waters. It targeted the large Airbus A300 and then insisted that crew members mistook it for an F-14 fighter jet, despite the obvious difference in size.
At the time, Iraq and Iran were engaged in a bitter war that was declared by Saddam Hussein on Sept. 22, 1980. The United States’ support for Iraq in the conflict is notable because it would later go on to overthrow Hussein in 2003.
The Iraq-Iran War was horrific, and in the eight years that it lasted, estimates claim that “at the very least half a million and possibly twice as many troops were killed on both sides, at least half a million became permanent invalids.” The cost of the war was around $228 billion and it resulted in more than $400 billion in damage.
The United States’ involvement stemmed from its support for Iraq, at a time when the Reagan Administration considered Iran to be a bitter enemy, and so it instead chose to support Hussein, in order to influence the conflict. As reports have noted, the U.S. used Iraq as “its surrogate for policy in the Persian Gulf region,” as it prevented the United Nations from imposing economic sanctions on Iraq, and defended the use of chemical weapons on Iranian civilians.
Then in 1988, the U.S. did the unthinkable by shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, which Iran claimed was a scheduled flight that was transmitting all of the necessary signals to show that it was a passenger plane and not a military aircraft. William C. Rogers III was the captain of the USS Vincennes during its first time at combat on that fateful day, and while he was controlling the U.S. Navy’s most expensive surface warship—which reportedly was powerful enough to shoot down up to 200 incoming missiles at once—he instead targeted a passenger plane.
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An investigation from Newsweek and ABC News referred to the tragedy as “the story of a naval fiasco, of an overeager captain, panicked crewmen, and the cover-up that followed,” which should never have happened, due to the fact that the U.S. was breaking international law with its presence in Iranian territorial waters when it shot down the plane:
“…Still lacking a clear target, Rogers radioed fleet headquarters and announced his intention to open fire. In Bahrain, Admiral Less's staff was uneasy. Captain Watkins quizzed Rogers on his position and the bearing of the gunboats. Finally, he asked, ‘Are the contacts clearing the area?’ The question could have been a show stopper. Judging from later testimony, few in the Vincennes CIC that day believed that the ship was under attack. In fact, the gunboats were just slowly milling about—evidently under the impression that they were safe in their own territorial waters. Through the haze, it is doubtful that the low-slung launches could have even seen the Vincennes. Rogers, however, continued to argue for permission to shoot.”
To say that Captain Rogers was overeager in his quest to take down a target is an understatement, and reports later revealed that the “F-14 fighter jet” he claimed was descending was actually an Iranian airliner filled with innocent civilians that was ascending, and was well within the commercial air corridor.
The cover-up was executed by U.S. military officials who failed to interview key witnesses, and then later lied to Congress about the location of key military warships at the time of the attack. As the investigation from Newsweek noted, the U.S. Navy had mostly gotten away with covering up the incident until the Iranian government filed a lawsuit which “forced Washington to admit, grudgingly, that the Vincennes was actually in Iranian waters—although Justice Department pleadings still claim the cruiser was forced there in self-defense.”
The United States and Iran agreed to a settlement in the International Court of Justice in 1996. While the U.S. did recognize that “the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident,” the U.S. was not required to admit legal liability or to formally apologize to Iran, and it later paid around $61.8 million—$213,103 per passenger—to the families of the victims.
Instead of firing or charging the U.S. military officials who were responsible for shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, the U.S. awarded Capt. Will Rogers III and Lt. Cmdr. Scott E. Lustig with special commendation medals for their "meritorious service" on the USS Vincennes in a display that completely ignored the tragedy they created and the nearly 300 innocent civilians they killed.