An Airbus A300 similar to the aircraft involved in the incident, EP-IBT
|Date||3 July 1988|
|Summary||Shot down by a missile fired from USS Vincennes|
|Site||Strait of Hormuz, near Qeshm Island, Iran |
|Aircraft type||Airbus A300B2-203|
|IATA flight No.||IR655|
|ICAO flight No.||IRA655|
|Call sign||IRANAIR 655|
|Flight origin||Mehrabad International Airport|
|Stopover||Bandar Abbas International Airport|
Bandar Abbas, Iran
|Destination||Dubai International Airport|
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board were killed. The jet was hit while flying over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, along the flight's usual route, shortly after departing Bandar Abbas International Airport, the flight's stopover location. The incident occurred during the final stages of the Iran–Iraq War, which had been continuing for nearly eight years. Vincennes had entered Iranian territory after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.
The reason for the shootdown has been disputed between the governments of the two countries. According to the U.S., the Vincennes crew had incorrectly identified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat, a U.S.-made jet fighter that had been part of the Iranian Air Force inventory since the 1970s. While the F-14s had been supplied to Iran in an air-to-air configuration, the Vincennes crew had been briefed that the Iranian F-14s were equipped with air-to-ground ordnance. Vincennes had made ten attempts to contact the aircraft both on military and on civilian frequencies, but had received no response. According to Iran, the cruiser negligently shot down the aircraft, which was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian aircraft, and not Mode II as used by Iranian military aircraft. The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. Some analysts blamed the captain of Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, for overly aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment. In the days immediately following the incident, President Ronald Reagan issued a written diplomatic note to the Iranian government, expressing deep regret. However, the U.S. continued to insist that Vincennes was acting in self-defense in international waters.
In 1996, the governments of the U.S. and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement "... the United States recognized 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 ..." When President Ronald Reagan was directly asked if he considered the statement an apology, Reagan replied, "Yes." As part of the settlement, even though the U.S. government did not admit legal liability or formally apologize to Iran, it still agreed to pay US$61.8 million on an ex gratia basis in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims. The shootdown was the deadliest aviation disaster involving an Airbus A300.
In 1984, the war between Iraq and Iran had expanded to include air attacks against oil tankers and merchant shipping of neighboring countries, some of whom were providing aid to Iraq by shipping Iraqi oil. The Flight 655 incident occurred a year after the Iraqi Air Force attack on the U.S. Navy guided missile frigate USS Stark on 17 May 1987, which killed 37 American sailors. U.S. naval forces had also exchanged gunfire with Iranian gunboats in late 1987, and the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts had struck an Iranian sea mine in April 1988. Two months before the incident, the U.S. had engaged in Operation Praying Mantis, resulting in the sinkings of the Iranian frigate Sahand, the Iranian fast attack craft Joshan and three Iranian speedboats. Also, the Iranian frigate Sabalan was crippled, two Iranian platforms were destroyed and an Iranian fighter was damaged. A total of at least 56 Iranian crew were killed, while the U.S. suffered the loss of only one helicopter, which crashed apparently by accident, and its two pilots were killed. Tensions were therefore high in the Strait of Hormuz at the time of the incident with Flight 655.
In response to the pattern of attacks on shipping, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a NOTAM on 8 September 1987, warning all Persian Gulf countries that civilian aircraft must monitor the 121.5 MHz VHF International Air Distress or the 243.0 MHz UHF Military Air Distress frequencies and be prepared to identify themselves to U.S. Navy ships and state their intentions.
On 29 April 1988, the U.S. expanded the scope of its navy's protection to all friendly neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf outside declared exclusion zones, which set the stage for the shootdown. At about the same time, 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 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. While legal under international law, these inspections added to the tensions in the area.
The plane, an Airbus A300 (registered as EP-IBU), flown by 37-year-old Captain Mohsen Rezaian, a veteran pilot with 7,000 hours of flight time, left Bandar Abbas at 10:17 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 20-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, and descend into Dubai. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder "squawk" code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained radio contact in English with appropriate air traffic control facilities.
On the morning of 3 July 1988, USS Vincennes was passing through the Strait of Hormuz returning from an escort duty. A helicopter deployed from the cruiser reportedly received small arms fire from Iranian patrol vessels as it observed from high altitude. 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. Vincennes then pursued the Iranian gunboats, entering Iranian territorial waters to open fire. At the time the missiles were launched, the Vincennes was located at , placing it within the twelve mile limit of Iranian territorial seas. The location of Vincennes in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident was admitted by the U.S. government in legal briefs and publicly by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, on Nightline. Two other U.S. Navy ships, USS Sides and USS Elmer Montgomery, were nearby. Admiral Crowe denied a U.S. government coverup of the incident and said the cruiser's helicopter was over international waters when the gunboats first fired upon it.
Contrary to the accounts of various Vincennes crew members, the cruiser's Aegis Combat System recorded that the airliner was climbing at the time and its radio transmitter was squawking on only the Mode III civilian frequency, and not on the military Mode II.
Flight 655 was first detected by Vincennes immediately after takeoff when it received a short IFF Mode II, possibly leading the crew of Vincennes to believe the airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat (capable of carrying unguided bombs since 1985) diving into an attack profile. Since the USS Stark incident, all aircraft in the area had to monitor 121.5 MHz, the International Air Distress (IAD) radio frequency. A total of 10 attempts were made to warn the airliner, seven on the Military Air Distress (MAD) frequency, and three on the IAD frequency. There were no responses.
At 10:24:22, after receiving no response to multiple radio challenges, Vincennes fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner at 10:24:43. The plane disintegrated immediately and crashed into the water soon after. None of the 290 passengers and crew on board survived. The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were never found.
According to the documents Iran submitted to the International Court of Justice, the aircraft was carrying 290 people: 274 passengers and a crew of 16. Of these 290, 254 were Iranian, 13 were Emiratis, 10 were Indians, six were Pakistanis, six were Yugoslavs and one was an Italian.
|United Arab Emirates||13||0||13|
Pentagon officials initially said Vincennes had shot down an Iranian F-14, but issued a retraction within hours and confirmed Iranian reports that the target was instead a civilian Airbus. According to the U.S. government, Vincennes mistakenly identified the airliner as an attacking military fighter and misidentified its flight profile as being similar to that of an F-14A Tomcat during an attack run; however, the cruiser's Aegis Combat System recorded the plane's flight plan as climbing (not descending as in an attack run) at the time of the incident. The flight had originated at Bandar Abbas, which served both as a base for Iranian F-14 operations and as a hub for commercial flights. According to the same reports, Vincennes unsuccessfully tried to contact the approaching aircraft, seven times on the military emergency frequency and three times on the civilian emergency frequency. This civilian aircraft was not equipped to pick up military frequencies and 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, a 50-knot (93 km/h) difference.
This 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 (the "Fogarty report"). 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 takeoff at Bandar Abbas to shoot-down."
The Fogarty report also stated, "Iran must share the responsibility for the tragedy by hazarding one of their civilian airliners by allowing it to fly a relatively low altitude air route in close proximity to hostilities that had been ongoing."
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 eighteen bridge crew of 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.
According to the Iranian government, the shootdown was an intentionally performed and unlawful act. Even if there was a mistaken identification, which Iran never accepted, it argues that this constituted negligence and recklessness amounting to an international crime, not an accident.(§4.52–4.54)
In particular, Iran expressed skepticism about claims of misidentification, noting that the cruiser's advanced Aegis radar correctly tracked the flight and its Mode III beacon; two other U.S. warships in the area, Sides and Montgomery, also identified the aircraft as civilian; and the flight was well within a recognized international air corridor. It also noted that the crew of Vincennes were trained to handle simultaneous attacks by hundreds of enemy aircraft.(§4.50) Iran found it more plausible that 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). Flight 655 had been cleared from a regional airport and was well outside those limits when it was attacked.(§4.62) Even if the plane had truly been an Iranian F-14, Iran argued that the U.S. would not have had the right to shoot it down, as it was flying within Iranian airspace and did not follow a path that could be considered an attack profile, nor did it illuminate Vincennes with radar.(§4.60–4.61) Prior to the incident, Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters,(§4.65) and was inside these waters when it launched its missiles.(§1.27) Even had the crew of Flight 655 made mistakes, the U.S. government would still remain responsible for the actions of Vincennes' crew, 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, the U.S. found Iraq fully responsible on the grounds that the Iraqi pilot "knew or should have known" he was attacking a U.S. warship.(§4.49)
In 1989, prior to the public exposure of Vincennes' position inside Iranian waters on Nightline by Admiral William Crowe, Professor Andreas Lowenfeld of the Editing Board of the American Journal of International Law criticized the official U.S. position (that the U.S. was not legally liable for the incident):
I do not understand Maier's argument at all ... But the correct legal principle, I am clear, is not as Sofaer and Maier would have it—no legal liability to victims of airplane disasters without proof of fault beyond a reasonable doubt, and no fault in combat zones—but rather liability regardless of fault, so long as the cause is established, as it clearly was in the case of Iran Air 655, as in the case of Korean Air Lines 007. I would have hoped that those who spoke for the United States about the tragedy of July 3, 1988, from the President on down, would have recognized this principle, so essential for the safety of civil aviation, as other spokesmen for the United States and its allies have done when other states' military (whether or not on orders from on high) brought down civilian aircraft that may have strayed off course. ... That principle, it is clear, was breached by the United States in the case of Iran Air 655, and it follows that the United States is responsible. To say that is not to condemn the United States or even to find fault. It is simply to state that responsibility flows from the action itself.
Lowenfeld also pointed out that the amount of compensation paid for Iranian victims was one-tenth the amount demanded from Iraq for American dead aboard the USS Stark.
One legal scholar noted in the Yale Journal of International Law, "The downing of Flight 655 should not be deemed lawful merely because the Vincennes' commanding officer reasonably mistook the situation as presenting an integrated surface and air attack. Reconceptualizing the incident as a mistake problem does not excuse the Vincennes from liability." [failed verification]
In an article published in Newsweek magazine on 13 July 1992, John Barry and Roger Charles argued that Rogers behaved recklessly and without due care. However, the subsequent Fogarty report concluded that Rogers acted in a prudent manner based on the information available to him, and the short time frame involved. He also proceeded according to the prescribed rules of engagement for U.S. Navy warship captains in that situation.
The Newsweek article also accused the U.S. government of a cover-up, but on July 21 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 value placed on Aegis cruisers by the U.S. Navy had played a major part in the setting of a low threshold for opening fire. Vincennes had been nicknamed "RoboCruiser" by crew members and other U.S. Navy ships, in reference to both its Aegis system and the supposed aggressive tendencies of its captain.
The International Court of Justice case relating to the attack, "the Aerial Incident of July 3, 1988" (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America), was dropped on 22 February 1996 following settlement and reparations by the United States.
Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles. This contradicted earlier navy statements. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report of December 1988 placed Vincennes well inside Iran's territorial waters.
Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of USS Sides, the warship stationed nearest to Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers's aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago". His comment referred to incidents on 2 June, when Rogers had sailed 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 a small Iranian craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on 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 that Iranian forces he had encountered in the area a month prior to the incident were "pointedly non-threatening" and professional. At the time of Rogers's announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported 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." Carlson thought Vincennes might have more information, and was unaware that Rogers had been wrongly informed that the plane was diving. Carlson is also reported to have written in the U.S. Naval Proceedings that he had "wondered aloud in disbelief" on hearing of Vincennes' intentions. In speculating on the "climate" that led up to the incident, Carlson said Vincennes, shortly beforehand dubbed by officers aboard Sides as "RoboCruiser" for its aggressiveness, engaged in a pattern of aggressive behavior over the prior month because the crew of Vincennes "felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis in the Persian Gulf, and that they hankered for the opportunity to show their stuff." Carlson believed this aggressiveness also contributed to the decision to chase after IRGC gunboats that had earlier fired in the vicinity of the ship's Seahawk helicopter, and that the subsequent engagement with small Iranian gunboats heightened tensions aboard Vincennes and contributed to the incident that occurred as the gunboat engagement was ongoing.
Throughout its final flight, Flight 655 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 Vincennes launched its missiles. According to the U.S. Navy investigation, 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 10 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. Flight 655's crew, however, would have seen a speed of 300 knots (560 km/h) on their cockpit instruments, which was their indicated airspeed, possibly leading them to conclude that Vincennes was talking to another aircraft. Both Sides and Vincennes tried contacting Flight 655 on several civilian and military frequencies. International investigations concluded that Flight 655's crew assumed the three calls they received before the missiles struck must have been directed at an Iranian P-3 Orion (see below). The International Civil Aviation Organization said the flight crew should have been monitoring the civilian frequency. They also said "American warships in the gulf had no equipment that allowed them to monitor civilian air traffic control radio frequencies, and thus no means of hearing the many radio transmissions between Iran Air Flight 655 and air traffic controllers that would have identified the aircraft to the Vincennes' crew."
In 1991, political scientist Robert Entman of George Washington University compared U.S. media coverage of the incident with the similar shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviet Union five years earlier by studying material from Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS Evening News. According to Entman, framing techniques were used to frame the Korean Airlines incident as deliberate sabotage while framing the Iran Air incident as a tragic mistake, stating "the angle taken by the U.S. media emphasized the moral bankruptcy and guilt of the perpetrating nation. With Iran Air 655, the frame de-emphasised guilt and focused on the complex problems of operating military high technology."[a] By "de-emphasizing the agency and the victims and by the choice of graphics and adjectives, the news stories about the U.S. downing of an Iranian plane called it a technical problem while the Soviet downing of a Korean jet was portrayed as a moral outrage." Entman included polling that appeared to show that the unbalanced coverage swayed public opinion against the Soviet Union and Iran. In July 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine, some commentators noted the discrepancy of U.S. official position and media coverage of the two similar incidents.
The event sparked an intense international controversy, with Iran condemning the attack. In mid-July 1988, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the United States saying the attack "could not have been a mistake" and was a "criminal act", a "massacre", and an "atrocity". George H. W. Bush, then-vice president of the United States in the Reagan administration, defended his country at the UN by arguing that the U.S. attack had been a wartime incident and the crew of 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. Most of 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 and "profound regret" for the loss of human lives, and stressing the need to end the Iran–Iraq War as resolved in 1987.
Inside Iran, this shootdown was perceived as a purposeful attack by United States, signalling that the U.S. was about to enter into a direct war against Iran on the side of Iraq. In August 1988, a month after the shoot-down, the Iranian government released a 45 rial postage stamp illustrating the event, where the ship shooting the missile is painted with the colors of the American flag, with a map of a burning Iran in the background.
In February 1996, the U.S. 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 and $150,000 per non-wage-earner. In total, 290 civilians on board were killed, 38 being non-Iranians and 66 being children. It was not disclosed how the remaining $70 million of the settlement was apportioned, though it was close to the value of a used A300 at the time.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives, but never formally apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing. On 5 July 1988 President Ronald Reagan expressed regret; when directly asked if he considered the statement an apology, Reagan replied, "Yes." George H. W. Bush, the vice president of the United States at the time commented on a separate occasion, speaking to a group of Republican ethnic leaders (7 August 1988): "I will never apologize for the United States—I don't care what the facts are ... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." The quote, although unrelated to the downing of the Iranian air liner and not in any official capacity, has been mistakenly attributed as such.
The incident overshadowed Iran–United States relations for many years. The former CIA analyst Kenneth M. Pollack wrote: "The shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran." Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 five 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 Flight 655.
Despite the mistakes made in the downing of the plane, the crew of USS Vincennes were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. The air warfare coordinator on duty received the Navy Commendation Medal, but The Washington Post reported in 1990 that the awards were for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and 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 Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.
The events of Flight 655 were featured in "Mistaken Identity", a season 3 (2005) episode of the Canadian TV series Mayday (called Air Emergency and Air Disasters in the U.S. and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and elsewhere around the world).
... contrary to Koppel's very serious charge of some type of conspiracy, the appropriate committees of Congress were kept informed throughout
The Pentagon declaring ... the Vicennes had shot down an attacking Iranian F14. "When airliners get shot down facts get skewed quickly". Washington Post.
Within hours ... the United States had confirmed the incident.
[The ICAO] added the crew was supposed to listen to a second frequency, 121.5 megahertz, on which four warning were issued.
Who was responsible for the incident? Coverage of the KAL disaster left little doubt in readers' minds of who the culprits were. Newsweek's cover page screamed: "MURDER IN THE AIR ..." The IA disaster was accompanied by soul searching and questioning. "WHY IT HAPPENED" was Newsweek's cover line ... In short, the KAL incident was framed as deliberate sabotage by a nation—an act of war—whereas the IA incident was framed as a tragic mistake.
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|Pre-accident picture of aircraft at Planepictures.net|
|Pre-accident picture of aircraft at the Aviation Safety Network|