The downing of a U.S. spy drone, the near-launch of military action against Iran and recent unclaimed attacks against nearby oil tankers in the last month have not only set off tensions in the Persian Gulf, but invoked memories of an even deadlier time in the two rivals’ troubled history three decades ago when the U.S. killed nearly 300 Iranian civilians.
The U.S. and Iran have never officially fought a war but the two sides have engaged in bouts of violence since the CIA-backed coup that reinstalled Iran’s monarchy in 1953 and the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted that leadership for the current cleric-led government. The following decade would prove complex for Washington and Tehran amid the regional volatility of the Iran-Iraq War, during which the U.S. sought to protect Kuwaiti vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The war often spilled over into these narrow, strategic waters, where the guided-missile frigate USS Stark was bombed by a modified Iraqi warplane, killing 37 sailors in May 1987, and fellow warship USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine in April 1988.
The U.S. blamed Iran for the latter incident and conducted one of the largest naval operations since World War II, destroying a number of Iranian ships and killing dozens of sailors.
Less than two months later, on July 3, 1988, Aegis-armed guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes opened fire at what its crew would later claim they thought to be an attacking Iranian F-14 fighter jet.
Instead, the aircraft was Iran Air Flight 655, a Dubai-bound civilian Airbus A300 with 290 people on board—all of whom were killed.
“The incident still resonates with Iranians,” Reza H. Akbari, program manager at the U.K.-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting, told Newsweek. “Once a year, the country’s state media rebroadcasts the tragic footage of the plane’s wreckage and civilian bodies floating in the Persian Gulf. For a few days, heart-wrenching images of family members crying over the loss of their loved ones and painful facts like the number of children on board are reviewed.
“The story matches well with the Islamic Republic’s 40-year-narrative of labeling the U.S. as a heartless imperialist power,” he added. “To this day, significant portions of the country’s authorities do not believe the event was an accident, but a deliberate message sent to Iran over its decision to plant underwater mines in the Persian Gulf amid the Tanker War phase of the Iran-Iraq War. The event is perfect propaganda fodder for the Iranian regime and does not bode well for America’s image in the country.”
More than three decades later, many feel that justice was never served as, apart from quietly expressing regret and offering $213,103.45 in compensation per passenger the U.S. military has never admitted fault, nor disciplined any of its own for the deadly incident.
“I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are,” then-Vice President George H.W. Bush told an August 1988 campaign rally less than a month after the incident, widely considered his response to the Iran Air Flight 655 downing. “I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”
An official report released weeks later by Navy Admiral William Fogarty, determined that USS Vincennes commanding officer Navy Captain Will Rogers III “acted in a prudent manner,” believing he and other U.S. ships present were threatened by the aircraft. It also found “Iran must share the responsibility for the tragedy by hazarding one of their civilian airliners by allowing it to fly at a relatively low altitude air route” during an ongoing battle between the U.S. Navy and Iranian gunboats.
Rogers remained in charge of the warship until the following year, and in 1990, he was awarded for his “meritorious service” between April 1987 to May 1989 as reported at the time by Newsweek. No mention was made of the airliner shootdown and Rogers retired honorably in 1991.
Just one day ahead of the fourth anniversary of the incident in 1992, however, Newsweek compiled an extensive account of how the hours leading up to Iran Air Flight 655’s destruction unfolded, detailing a chaotic scene that—based on declassified documents, video and audiotape from the involved ships and over 100 interviews—largely pointed to Rogers being a fault and the Pentagon attempting to cover its tracks.
The investigation, conducted alongside ABC News’ Nightline, determined, among other things, that the USS Vincennes had strayed into Iranian territory in an apparent violation of international law—just as Iran claimed the U.S. Navy’s spy drone did so last month before being shot down.
Navy Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenged the findings of the report in his testimony later that month in July 1992 to the House of Representatives. He said his “main criticism of the ABC-Newsweek treatment, however, is the inflated and outrageous rhetoric employed on the basis of very slim and often mistaken information.”
Crowe also disputed that the USS Vincennes was in the wrong for entering Iranian territory amid a reported exchange of fire with the Islamic Republics’ gunboats, arguing that “a warship acting in self-defense has the right under international law to enter the aggressor waters to defend itself.” He concluded that the Navy “did not, I emphasize did not, at any time cover up, conspire or conduct a secret war, beyond the knowledge of our leaders, and you who are charged as the safekeepers for all the American people.”
In the years since, the story of Iran Air Flight 655 was largely forgotten in the U.S., apart from the occasional retrospective feature. In Iran, however, its tragic legacy lives on. Not only of those killed on board, but as Akbari said, “of sad memories from the dark days of the Iran-Iraq War.”