Wednesday 3 July 2013

Remembering Iran Air Flight 655

[This is the headline over an article just published on the Iranian FARS News Agency website.  It reads in part:]

On July 3, 1988, an Iranian aircraft registered on the radar screen of the USS Vincennes. The US Navy officers on the bridge identified the approaching aircraft as an Iranian Air Force F-14 Tomcat. Though they would later claim that they tried to reach the aircraft on military and civilian frequencies, they failed to try air traffic control, which would have probably cleared the air. Instead, as the aircraft drew nearer, the Americans fired two guided missiles at their target: a civilian Airbus A300B2, killing 290 civilians, including 66 children, en route to Dubai.

Twenty-five years ago, the Iran-Iraq war was well into its eighth bloody year. Then, as now, Iran was considered the foe; and Iraq, the ally. The US government never published a complete report of the investigation and continued to assert that the crew of the USS Vincennes mistakenly identified the aircraft as a fighter jet and acted in self defense. While it expressed its regrets, the United States failed to condemn what happened and never apologized to the Iranian people. The Iranian government asked several times -- rhetorically -- how a guided missile cruiser, such as the USS Vincennes, equipped with the latest in electronic technology, was unable to distinguish a slowly ascending Airbus from a much smaller fighter jet. After Iran sued the United States in the International Court of Justice, the Americans agreed to pay $61.8 million in compensation to the victims' families. However, it did not escape any Iranian that the United States extracted $1.7 billion, a sum 30 times greater, from Libya as compensation for the victims of the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, which took place the same year. (...)

In fact, for many Iranians, the shooting down of IR655 reminded them of how defenseless they were in their own region and in their own waters and airspace. The military has capitalized on this. Since the end of war with Iraq, Iran's military leadership operates on the presumption that it is incapable of winning a conventional war against a superpower. It also assumes that should such a conflict occur, Iran should not expect any sympathy or help from the international community. The silence over IR655, though convenient at the time for many US allies, continues to haunt many Iranians. Predictably, it has been used by state media to convince segments of the public that Iran stands to gain little or no justice from engaging with the rest of the world. Many Iranian hardliners continue to use the tragedy to argue for a buildup and a militarily powerful Iran. They also use it to underscore the West's dual standards, should anyone forget.

Although no one speaks of IR655 in the United States, it poses a simple and important question about engagement in Iran to almost anyone who thinks of Iran. What does the United States want? A democratic Iran and a government that capitulates to it, or the one that serves its interests? Will the United States again sacrifice Iranian lives to force the Iranian government to accept a short-term political order?

For those with a longer memory span, it's difficult to dismiss some of these concerns particularly when you recall that the reckless behavior of the USS Vincennes commanding officer earned him the Legion of Merits, "a military decoration of the United States armed forces that is awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements." For many Iranians, this is utterly incomprehensible.

[A typical formulation of the thesis that Pan Am 103 was destroyed in retaliation for the shooting down of the Iranian Airbus can be read here.]



    Dear Professor Robert Black

    Is there a possibility for MEBO Ltd. and I, Edwin Bollier to ask for a reopening of the withdrawal appeal by Megrahi , due to reputation and material damage.
    best regards

    Edwin Bollier, MEBO Ltd. Telecommunication, Switzerland. Webpage:

  2. Edwin, in theory, absolutely anyone can go to the SCCRC and ask them to consider whether a conviction should be referred back to the High Court for a further appeal. But the SCCRC has to consider the interests of justice and "the need for finality and certainty" in legal proceedings (as does the High Court itself, if the SCCRC does refer back). So there is nothing to stop you and/or MEBO making an application. But I have to say that I have grave doubts about whether it would succeed. However, it could be that I'm being unduly pessimistic.

  3. Dear Professor Robert Black,
    thank you
    MEBO "starts" to the Scottish Criminal Cases Reappeal Commission (SCCRC)
    best regards Edwin

  4. This is an exaggeration and I don’t want to go to war, but the American paradox is they are a military super-power who can’t fight!

    They have a volunteer ‘equal opportunity’ army which is mostly the equivalent of our Youth Training Scheme that provides the recruits with an income and teaches them a trade.

    They do not join to fight and when they do it’s often an inept and counter-productive embarrassment.

    I recall reading a British Officer’s anecdotal example of this when describing the antics of US Marines during the Iraq war.

    They had spotted two unidentified Iraqi’s running to hide in a shed. They did not advance on the shed to check who was there or whether they wanted to surrender.

    Instead they decided to fire missiles at the shed and were dancing with excitement at the prospect of hitting it.

    After numerous attempts they finally hit it, by which time the Iraqi’s had fled, but the Marines had ‘finished the job’ by destroying the shed.

    In other words, they just relied on their excessive firepower no questions asked, ‘to do the job’ - and spent $millions on destroying a $10 shed!

    And this destroying everything you see before advancing ‘wins them the war but not the peace’!

    They do this because they don’t want any American casualties raising political opposition from the public and because military procurement is in the hands of consultants who profit from arms sales and are happy to commission extremely expensive weapons, even if they don’t work or are too good for the job!

    For example, the reason planes and drones miss their ‘legitimate targets’ is because they fly too fast and are remotely controlled.

    A one second delay delivers a 2 mile miss and because without troops on the ground it is difficult to see who you are attacking and the drone attacks become no more than ‘bomb and hope’ that make things worse.

    This brings us to the USS Vincennes. This ‘state of the art’ warship was so good it didn’t work.

    The humid conditions of the Gulf affected the computer panels in a control room that was awash with flashing lights, information and warnings that created confusion.

    This and a gung-ho Captain and nervous crew ‘looking for action’ but ill-suited to deal with ‘being attacked’ meant a slow moving and ascending civilian airbus was confused with a fast moving and descending fighter plane.

    A shocking mistake, but the Captain was given military awards to avoid the alternative, a court marital that would have revealed the truth about the American military.

    And Iran had no reason to seek anonymous revenge for IA655 as opposed to all the other attacks they had suffered during the Iraq-Iran war, particularly as this matter was settled publicly in court with compensation payments.

  5. "The officers on the bridge identified the approaching aircraft as an Iranian F-14 Tomcat." No they didn't. It is an oft repeated myth. (i.e.see David Walchover.) The F-14 would pose no threat to The Vincennes save for a kamikaze attack. Captain Rogers, implied, but did not state openly in his memoirs "Storm Centre" that the aircraft was possibly a (Vietnam era) F-4 better known as a Phantom. (see section Captain William Rogers in part IV of The Masonic Verses at for a proper account of the "Vincennes Incident." )

  6. Baz

    An interesting read which I had read before, that confirms the Vincennes confusion, as opposed to everyone else, regarding the identity of the plane.

    I never said they had mistaken the IA655 as an F-14 Tomcat.

    My point was that in the panic and confusion of the control room they had feared they were under attack and destroyed the ‘fighter plane’ just in case they were.

    You say an F-14 would be ineffectual against the Vincennes, but a gung-ho and panicky control room aren’t so sure and don’t want the embarrassment of being hit.

    I don’t believe they calmly and knowingly destroyed a civilian airliner, even if they were desperate for combat medals!

  7. The flight was IR655, not IA655.

  8. No Dave the article on the FARS website stated the Americans thought it was an F-14 Tomcat. In his appalling article "What if they are innocent?" Ambassador Kilgore's protégé, the late Russell Warren Howe wrote "the crew thought it was an Iranian MiG". Possible but unlikely as until the Iraqi airforce decamped to Iran, Iran didn't have any Migs!

  9. I don’t believe they made a terrible but rational mistake by calmly identifying IR655 as a fighter plane and a threat.

    Instead they just panicked and fired out of fear that they were under attack and were 'all going to die', even though rationally they should have known they were safe!

    True the later reports said they genuinely thought they were under attack, but this was just spin to cover-up the fact they panicked ‘under fire’ and fired blind!

    Indeed mistaking a civilian aircraft for a fighter plane just illustrates my point about the incompetence of the American military.

  10. Dave - I did not say you said they had mistaken the target for an F-14Tomcat. I was quoting the original article that did. I also said that short of a Kamikaze attach the Tomcat posed no threat (having to air to surface missiles).

    Rogers claimed his boss Admiral less had briefed him that the Iranians had converted the F-4 to carry iron bombs (i.e.unguided Ordnance). Whether Less actually did is another matter but again no real threat to The Vincennes. My article did stress the spectre of The Stark incident.

    In his appalling article "What If They Are Innocent" the late Russell warren Howe wrote "they thought it was an Iranian MiG". That might indicate how stoned the crew of The Vincennes were for until the Iraqi air-force decamped to Iran on the outbreak of the 1st Gulf War the Iranians didn't have any MiGs.

    I don't believe they calmly and knowingly destroyed a civilian airliner either - calm is not an apt description of Captain Rogers' actions that day.

  11. Yes sorry I agree, my misunderstanding.