Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from Tehran, Iran, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz by SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles fired from the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished. Ranking seventh among the deadliest disasters in aviation history, the incident retains the highest death toll of any aviation incident in the Indian Ocean and the highest death toll of any incident involving an Airbus A300 anywhere in the world. The Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.
According to the United States Government, the crew incorrectly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter (a plane made in the United States and operated at that time by only two forces worldwide, the United States Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force). Contributing to the error was the fact that the airliner did not respond to several inquiries to change course and did not identify itself clearly as civilian. This was because Vincennes was signaling warnings on a military channel and the civilian plane could not technically receive it. The Iranian government maintains that Vincennes negligently shot down the civilian aircraft. The event generated a great deal of controversy and criticism of the United States. Some analysts have blamed U.S. military commanders and the captain of Vincennes for reckless and aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment.
In 1996, the United States and Iran reached "an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims" relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice. As part of the settlement, the United States agreed to pay US$61.8 million, an average of $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims. However, the United States has never admitted responsibility, nor apologized to Iran.
As of January 2012[update], Iran Air was still using flight number IR655 on the Tehran–Dubai route as a memorial to the victims, contrary to the informal convention amongst many other airlines that discontinue flight numbers associated with accidents.
In September 1980, the war between Iraq and Iran had expanded to include air attacks against oil tankers and merchant shipping of neighboring countries. The Flight 655 incident occurred a year after the 17 May 1987, Iraqi Air Force attack on the U.S. Navy guided-missile frigate USS Stark. U.S. naval forces had also exchanged gunfire with Iranian gunboats in the fall of 1987, and the U.S. Navy guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts had struck an Iranian sea mine in April 1988. Two months before the incident the US had engaged in Operation Praying Mantis resulting in the sinking of the Iranian frigate Sahand. Tensions were therefore high in the Strait of Hormuz at the time of the incident with Flight 655.
On 29 April 1988 the U.S. expanded the scope of the U.S. Navy's protection to all friendly neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf outside of declared exclusion zones, setting the stage for the shootdown incident. At about the same time, USS Vincennes was rushed to the area on a short-notice deployment, as a result of high-level decisions, to compensate for the lack of AWACS coverage which was hampering U.S. monitoring of the southern Persian Gulf. Vincennes, fitted with the then-new Aegis Combat System and under the command of Captain William C. Rogers III, departed San Diego on 25 April 1988 and arrived in Bahrain on 29 May 1988.
As the Strait of Hormuz at its narrowest is just 21 nautical miles (39 km) wide, in order to traverse the strait, ships must stay within sea lanes that pass through the territorial waters of Iran and Oman under the transit passage provisions of customary Law of the Sea. It is therefore normal for ships, including warships, entering or leaving the Persian Gulf to transit Iranian territorial waters. During the Iran–Iraq War the Iranian forces frequently boarded and inspected neutral cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz in search of contraband destined for Iraq, as they were entitled to do under international law. While legal, these inspections added to the tensions in the area.
Shooting down of Flight 655
The plane, an Airbus A300B2, registered as EP-IBU and flown by Captain Mohsen Rezaian, a veteran pilot with 7,000 hours of flight time, left Bandar Abbas at 10:17 am Iran time (UTC +03:30), 27 minutes after its scheduled departure time. It should have been a 28-minute flight. After takeoff, it was directed by the Bandar Abbas tower to turn on its transponder and proceed over the Persian Gulf. The flight was assigned routinely to commercial air corridor Amber 59, a twenty-mile (32 km)-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. The short distance made for a simple flight pattern: climb to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), cruise for a short time, and descend into Dubai. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder "squawk" code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained English-speaking radio contact with appropriate air traffic control facilities.
On the morning of 3 July, the Vincennes, Captain William C. Rogers III commanding, was passing through the Strait of Hormuz returning from an escort duty. A helicopter from the USS Vincennes received small arms fire from Iranian patrol vessels, as it observed from high altitude. The Vincennes moved to engage the Iranian vessels, in the course of which they all violated Omani waters and left after being challenged and ordered to leave by a Royal Navy of Oman warship. The Vincennes then pursued the Iranian gunboats, entering Iranian territorial waters to open fire. The USS Sides and USS Elmer Montgomery were nearby. Thus, the USS Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, as admitted by the US government in legal briefs and publicly by Admiral William Crowe on Nightline. However, Admiral Crowe denied a U.S. government coverup of the incident and claimed that the USS Vincennes's helicopter was in international waters initially, when it was first fired upon by the Iranian gunboats.
Contrary to the accounts of various USS Vincennes crewmembers, the Iranian airliner was climbing at the time and its radio transmitter was "squawking" on the Mode III civilian and military code rather than on the purely military Mode II, as recorded by the USS Vincennes own shipboard Aegis Combat System.
After receiving no response to multiple radio challenges, the USS Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles at the airliner, destroying it and killing all aboard.
The event triggered an intense international controversy, with Iran condemning the U.S. attack. In mid-July 1988, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the United States saying the U.S. attack "could not have been a mistake" and was a "criminal act", an "atrocity" and a "massacre." George H. W. Bush, at the time Vice President of the United States in the Reagan administration, defended his country at the United Nations by arguing that the U.S. attack had been a wartime incident and that the crew of the Vincennes had acted appropriately to the situation. The Soviet Union asked the U.S. to withdraw from the area and supported efforts by the Security Council to end the Iran–Iraq War. The remainder of the 13 delegates who spoke supported the U.S. position, saying one of the problems was that a 1987 resolution to end the Iran-Iraq war had been ignored. Following the debate, Security Council Resolution 616 was passed expressing "deep distress" over the U.S. attack, "profound regret" for the loss of human lives, and stressed the need to end the Iran-Iraq war as resolved in 1987.
Nationalities of the victims
According to the documents submitted to the International Court of Justice by Iran, the aircraft was carrying 290 people: 274 passengers and a crew of 16. Of these 290, 254 were Iranian, 13 were Emiratis, 10 were Indian, 6 were Pakistanis, 6 were of Yugoslavia and 1 was an Italian.
|United Arab Emirates||13||0||13|
U.S. government accounts
According to the U.S. government, the Vincennes mistakenly identified the Iranian airliner as an attacking military fighter. The officers misidentified the flight profile being flown by the Airbus A300B2 as being similar to that of an F-14A Tomcat during an attack run; however, the ship's own Aegis Combat System recorded the flight plan of the Iranian airliner as climbing (not descending as in an attack run) at the time of the incident. The commercial flight had originated at Bandar Abbas, which served dual roles as a base for Iranian F-14 operations and as a hub for commercial, civilian flights. According to the same reports, the Vincennes tried unsuccessfully to contact the approaching aircraft, seven times on the military emergency frequency and three times on the civilian emergency frequency, but never on air traffic control frequencies. However, this civilian aircraft was not equipped to pick up military frequencies while the messages on the civilian emergency channel could have been directed at any aircraft. More confusion arose as the hailed speed was the ground speed, while the pilot's instruments displayed airspeed, which happened to be 50-knot (93 km/h) different.
At 10:24 am, with the civilian jet 11 nautical miles (20 km) away, the Vincennes fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, both of which hit Flight 655. After the attack, the Vincennes' crew realized that the plane had been a civilian airliner.
This version was finalized in a report by Admiral William Fogarty, entitled Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988. Only parts of this report have been released (part I in 1988 and part II in 1993). The Fogarty report stated, "The data from USS Vincennes tapes, information from USS Sides and reliable intelligence information, corroborate the fact that [Iran Air Flight 655] was on a normal commercial air flight plan profile, in the assigned airway, squawking Mode III 6760, on a continuous ascent in altitude from take-off at Bandar Abbas to shoot-down."
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of the Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives and in 1996 paid reparations to settle a suit brought in the International Court of Justice regarding the incident, however the United States never released an apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
Iranian government account
According to the Iranian government, the shooting down of IR 655 by the Vincennes was an intentionally performed and unlawful act. Even if there was a mistaken identification, which Iran has not accepted, it argues that this constituted gross negligence and recklessness amounting to an international crime, not an accident.(§4.52–4.54)
In particular, Iran expressed skepticism about claims of mis-identification, noting that the Vincennes had advanced Aegis radar that correctly tracked the flight and its Mode III beacon; two other U.S. warships in the area, Sides and Montgomery, identified the aircraft as civilian; and the flight was well within a recognized international air corridor. It also noted that the crew of the Vincennes was trained to handle simultaneous attacks by hundreds of enemy aircraft.(§4.50) Iran found it more plausible that the Vincennes "hankered for an opportunity to show its stuff".(§4.52)
According to Iran, the U.S. had previously issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning aircraft that they were at risk of "defensive measures" if they had not been cleared from a regional airport and if they came within 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) of a warship at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet (610 m)." IR 655 had been cleared from a regional airport and was well outside those limits when it was attacked.(§4.62)
Even if the aircraft had been an Iranian F-14, Iran argued, the U.S. would have had no right to shoot it down. The aircraft was flying within Iranian airspace and did not, in fact, follow a path that could be considered an attack profile, nor did it illuminate the Vincennes with radar.(§4.60–4.61) During the incident, the Vincennes had also covertly entered Iranian territorial waters without first declaring war, while aiding (Iraq's 1980–1988 war against Iran). Furthermore, regardless of any mistakes made by the crew, the U.S. was fully responsible for the actions of its warship under international law.(§4.56)
Iran pointed out that in the past "the United States has steadfastly condemned the shooting down of aircraft, whether civil or military, by the armed forces of another State" and cited El Al Flight 402, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 and Korean Air Lines Flight 007, among other incidents.(§4.66–4.70) Iran also noted that when Iraq attacked the USS Stark, United States found Iraq fully responsible on the grounds that the Iraqi pilot "knew or should have known" that he was attacking a U.S. warship.(§4.49)
On 11 August 1988, a month after the shoot down, the Iranian government released a stamp illustrating the event, where the ship shooting the missile is painted with the colors of the American flag, and the map of Iran is burning on the background.
National Geographic Channel broadcast a documentary on this incident titled "Mistaken Identity" as an episode of its Mayday (aka: Air Crash Investigation) series (Season 3, Episode 5); the documentary confirmed that the airliner was transmitting an Identification friend or foe code for a civilian aircraft, but Captain William C. Rogers III in an interview insisted that he believed the code alone did not mean the aircraft was non-hostile. Captain Rogers described the attack as a self-defense measure to save his ship and the lives of the crew.
John Barry and Roger Charles of Newsweek wrote in their 13 July 1992 article that Rogers acted recklessly and without due care.
They also accused the U.S. government of a cover-up, but Admiral Crowe denied any knowledge. An analysis of the events by the International Strategic Studies Association described the deployment of an Aegis cruiser in the zone as irresponsible and felt that the expense of the ship had played a major part in the setting of a low threshold for opening fire. The Vincennes had been nicknamed 'Robocruiser' by crew members and other US Navy ships, both in reference to its Aegis system, and to the supposed aggressive tendencies of its captain.
The International Court of Justice case relating to the Airbus attack, "the Aerial Incident of July 3, 1988, (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America)", was dropped 22 February 1996 following settlement and reparations by the United States.
Three years after the incident, Admiral William J. Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that the Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles. This contradicted earlier Navy statements that were misleading if not incorrect. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report of December 1988 placed the USS Vincennes well inside Iran's territorial waters.
Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of the USS Sides, the warship stationed near to the Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers' aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago." His comment referred to incidents on 2 June, when Rogers had sailed the Vincennes too close to an Iranian frigate undertaking a lawful search of a bulk carrier, launched a helicopter within 2–3 miles (3.2–4.8 km) of an Iranian small craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on a number of small Iranian military boats. Of those incidents, Carlson commented, "Why do you want an Aegis cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't a smart thing to do." He also said of Iranian forces he'd encountered in the area a month prior to the incident were "...pointedly non-threatening" and professional. At the time of Rogers' announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have been thunderstruck: "I said to folks around me, 'Why, what the hell is he doing?' I went through the drill again. F-14. He's climbing. By now this damn thing is at 7,000 feet." However, Carlson thought the Vincennes might have more information, and was unaware that Rogers had been wrongly informed that the plane was diving.
Craig, Morales & Oliver, in a slide presentation published in M.I.T.'s Spring 2004 Aeronautics & Astronautics as the "USS Vincennes Incident", commented that Captain Rogers had "an undeniable and unequivocal tendency towards what I call 'picking a fight.'" On his own initiative, Rogers moved the Vincennes 50 miles (80 km) northeast to join the USS Montgomery. An angry Captain Richard McKenna, Chief of Surface Warfare for the Commander of the Joint Task Force, ordered Rogers back to Abu Musa, but the Vincennes helicopter pilot, Lt Mark Collier, followed the Iranian speedboats as they retreated north, eventually taking some fire:
|“||...the Vincennes jumps back into the fray. Heading towards the majority of the speedboats, he is unable to get a clear target. Also, the speedboats are now just slowly milling about in their own territorial waters. Despite clear information to the contrary, Rogers informs command that the gunboats are gathering speed and showing hostile intent and gains approval to fire upon them at 0939. Finally, in another fateful decision, he crosses the 12-nautical-mile (22 km) limit off the coast and enters illegally into Iranian waters.||”|
Throughout its final flight, IR655 was in radio contact with various air traffic control services using standard civil aviation frequencies, and had spoken in English to Bandar Abbas Approach Control seconds before the Vincennes launched its missiles. According to the U.S. Navy investigation the Vincennes at that time had no equipment suitable for monitoring civil aviation frequencies, other than the International Air Distress frequency. Subsequently U.S. Navy warships in the area were equipped with dialable VHF radios, and access to flight plan information was sought, to better track commercial airliners.
The official ICAO report stated that ten attempts were made to contact Iran Air flight 655: seven on military frequencies and three on commercial frequencies, addressed to an "unidentified Iranian aircraft" and giving its speed as 350 knots (650 km/h), which was the ground speed of the aircraft their radar reported. The crew of the Iran Air 655, however, would have seen a speed of 300 knots (560 km/h) on their controls, which was their indicated airspeed, possibly leading them to conclude that the Vincennes was talking to another aircraft. Both Sides and Vincennes tried contacting flight 655 on several civilian and military frequencies.
International investigations concluded that the crew of IR655 assumed that the three calls that they received before the missiles struck must have been directed at an Iranian P-3 Orion (see below).
- The ship's crew did not efficiently consult commercial airliner schedules, due to confusion over which time zone the schedules referred to. The schedules flight times used Bandar Abbas airport time while the Vincennes was on Bahrain time. The airliner's departure was 27 minutes later than scheduled. "The Combat Information Center (CIC) was also very dark, and the few lights that it did have flickered every time the Vincennes fired at the speedboats. This was of special concern to Petty Officer Andrew Anderson, who first picked up Flight 655 on radar and thought that it might be a commercial aircraft. As he was searching in the Navy's listing of commercial flights, he apparently missed Flight 655 because it was so dark."
- An Iranian P-3 was in the area some time before the attack, thought to be flying a "classic targeting profile", and in some reports providing an explanation why no radar signals were detected from Iran Air Flight 655. Other reports state that the Airbus was immediately detected after takeoff by Vincennes's AN/SPY-1 radar at a range of 47 miles (76 km).
- The crew in the Vincennes CIC could not agree amongst themselves if the aircraft was ascending or descending. This seems to have happened because the Airbus' original Link 11 track, number 4474, had been replaced by the Sides track, number 4131, when the computer recognised them as one and the same. Shortly thereafter, track 4474 was re-assigned by the system to an American A-6, several hundred miles away, which was following a descending course at the time. Apparently not all the crew in the CIC realized the track number had been switched on them.
- The psychology and mindset after engaging in a battle with Iranian gunboats. There are claims that Vincennes was engaged in an operation using a decoy cargo ship to lure Iranian gunboats to a fight. However, those claims are denied by Fogarty in "Hearing Before The Investigation Subcommittee and The Defense Policy Panel of The Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundred Second Congress, Second Session, 21 July 1992". Also, the initial claims of Vincennes being called for help by a cargo ship attacked by Iranian gunboats have been ruled out. That leads to claims that the Iranian gunboats were provoked by helicopters inside Iranian waters and not the other way around. This might have contributed to the mistakes made. The actual reasons for the Vincennes' engagement with gunboats are not so clear to this date.
The men of the Vincennes were all awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, received the Navy Commendation Medal, often given for acts of heroism or meritorious service, a not-uncommon end-of-tour medal for a second tour division officer. According to the History Channel, the medal citation noted his ability to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure." However, in 1990, The Washington Post listed Lustig's awards as one being for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and the other for 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 the Vincennes, and the citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655. The Legion of Merit is often awarded to high-ranking officers upon successful completion of especially difficult duty assignments and/or last tours of duty before retirement.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the tragic occurrence.
In February 1996, the United States agreed to pay Iran US$131.8 million in settlement to discontinue a case brought by Iran in 1989 against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice relating to this incident, together with other earlier claims before the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. US$61.8 million of the claim was in compensation for the 248 Iranians killed in the shoot-down ($300,000 per wage-earning victim, $150,000 per non-wage-earner). In total 290 civilians on board (including 38 non-Iranians and 66 children) were killed. It was not disclosed how the remaining $70 million of the settlement was apportioned, though it appears a close approximation of the value of a used A300 jet at the time. Further compensation was paid for the 38 non-Iranian deaths. The payment of compensation was explicitly characterized by the US as being on an ex gratia basis, and the U.S. denied having any responsibility or liability for what happened.
The incident overshadowed Iran–United States relations for many years. Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 six months later, the British and American governments initially blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group backed by Syria, with assumptions of assistance from Iran in retaliation for Iran Air Flight 655.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Iran Air Flight 655.|
- Iran Air shot down, The History Channel
- ABC Documentary film: Tragedy Over the Persian Gulf
- Iran Air 655 Shootdown, Iran Chamber
- Mehr News, Mehr News Agency
- ABC Nightline interview with Admiral William Crowe aired 1 July 1992, in which Crowe admits that the Vincennes was inside Iranian waters at the time of the shooting, despite what the Navy had been claiming.
- US Senate, Armed Services Committee hearing, 8 September 1988
- A collection of US government statements on Iran Air Flight 655
- Tragedy over the Persian Gulf, from Chapter 9 of Trapped in the Net:The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization by Gene I. Rochlin
- Vincennes A Case Study, Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
- ICJ case — Written Pleadings, Iran and U.S. cases to the International Court of Justice
- U.S. Department of State Bulletin September 1988 Transcripts: 3 July 1998, President’s Statement; 4 July 1988, Letter To Congress; 6 July 1988, U.S. Letter To The UN Security Council; 11 July 1988, Herbert S. Okun, White House Statement; 13 July 1988, Assistant Secretary Richard S. Williamson, ICAO Council, Montreal; 14 July 1988, Vice-President Bush, UN Security Council
- Sea of Lies, Newsweek, July 13, 1992
- The Official site of Holy Defence – Iraq-Iran War 1980–88 Image gallery regarding Iran Air Flight 655 from an Iranian foundation.
- Flight 655 in the context of Iran-US stand-off – CASMII
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