One Airline Flight is at the Heart of US Problems With Iran

With a heightening of tensions between the U.S. and Iran it seems important to bring a little bit of history – aviation history between the two countries – back into focus. As we consider whether recent events might lead to further tit-for-tat escalation or misinterpretation by either side – neither one of which wants outright war – it’s impossible to overstate the significance of Iran Air 655 in shaping how Iran perceives the U.S.

Three years ago I wrote about how the U.S. shooting down an Iranian civilian jetliner plays a similar role in Iran’s consciousness that Iran taking hostages after the 1979 Islamic Revolution plays in the U.S. narrative.

The 1979 revolution overthrew the Shah, whose power had been consolidated with the help of the CIA (after the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh). The US backed Iraq in the 8 year Iran-Iraq war, though in hindsight this didn’t go well, shortly after it ended Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait – which had provided billions for his anti-Iran crusade.

Iran came to the table for peace, helping to end the war in a stalemate, shortly after the US shot down a civilian Iran Air flight in 1988. They may have believed that the US was openly joining Iraq’s fight and would stop at nothing.

The horrible incident brought Tehran closer to ending the war, but its effects have lingered much longer than that. “The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran,” former CIA analyst and current Brookings scholar Kenneth Pollack wrote in his 2004 history of U.S.-Iran enmity, “The Persian Puzzle.” “The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful. … Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq’s side.”

That belief, along with Iraq’s increased use of chemical weapons against Iran, led Tehran to accept a United Nations cease-fire two months later. But it also helped cement a view in Iran, still common among hard-liners in the government, that the United States is absolutely committed to the destruction of the Islamic Republic and will stop at almost nothing to accomplish this. It is, as Time’s Michael Crowley points out in an important piece, one of several reasons that Iran has a hard time believing it can trust the United States to ever stop short of its complete destruction.

Iran still sees the US as its enemy, in part because we made a grave mistake similar to the Soviet downing of KAL 007 and arguably similar to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 near the Russia-Ukraine border. As recently as a couple of years ago Iran Air still operated its daily Tehran – Dubai service once a week on Fridays as flight 655.

The US was involved in the Iran – Iraq war throughout parts of the 1980s. The US Navy exchanged fire with Iranian boats in late 1987 and a US ship struck an Iranian mine in April 1988. So the US was on alert for potential risks and had warned countries in the region via a NOTAM or Notice to Airmen that civilian aircraft had to monitor the international air distress frequency and be prepared to identify themselves to Navy ships to avoid being shot down.

Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, flew from Tehran to Bandar Abbas on July 3, 1988. From there it operated a short flight to Dubai.

iran air
Iran Air A300 (Current Livery), Copyright: rebius / 123RF Stock Photo

The USS Vincennes pursued Iranian gunboats that had reportedly fired on one of its helicopters into Iranian waters in the Straits of Hormuz. They saw the Iran Air flight climbing on departure from Bandar Abbas. The airport was dual use — civilian flights but also F14 military aircraft (it’s a whole separate story how Iran came to operate US fighter jets). They feared they would come under attack from an F-14.

The US ship reportedly made 10 attempts to contact the Iranian aircraft, 7 on a military channel and 3 on a civilian channel. They received no response, fired missiles at the plane, and killed all 274 passengers and 16 crew on board.

The Vincennes lacked the capability to communicate on air traffic control frequencies. Its civilian communication would have been heard by the aircraft, but they hailed an unidentified aircraft at ‘350 knots’ or about 400 miles per hour which would have been the plane’s ground speed, a measure which differed significantly from the air speed (300 knots or about 350 miles per hour) the pilots would have seen.

It’s reasonable to believe the Iran Air pilots assumed a different plane was being hailed. They were flying in Iranian airspace above the proscribed altitude in the US NOTAM. The plane was climbing, not descending as though to attack.

While the US initially claimed its ship was in international waters, and that the ship’s captain acted reasonably given the information available and the short timeframe in which the situation developed, in 1996 the US agreed to pay Iran $132 million as a settlement though did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

Iran continues to see the US as an enemy and an untrustworthy negotiating partner in part because of the 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655.

To them, the US is a country that would intentionally blow up a civilian flight to gain advantage against it. Moving into Iraq in 2003 was seen as a hostile act not just against Saddam Hussein but against Iran as well.

And Syria today is in large measure a proxy war, the fight with Bashar al-Assad is a fight between the US alongside Sunni Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand and Shia Iran on the other. To the extent Iran still sees itself under threat, in part because of this incident so many years ago, we continue to butt heads with them in the region today.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Ukraine’s Embassy in Iran initially stated that an engine failure – rather than an attack – caused the crash. However the embassy then deleted its statement and indicated it hadn’t been official. Several airlines have re-routed traffic to avoid the region and the U.S. is banning overflights in the area (U.S. planes might seem at increased risk with the President of Iran citing the downing of Iran Air 655 in response to President Trump’s remarks on tensions). […]

Comments

  1. Hereally is the inside story:

    The hostage takers were nice people, they wanted to free all the hostages but they didn’t speak English. The translator was an American psychopath by the name of John Doe. The hostage takers asked the hostages in farsI where can we drop you off with gifts for American people. The asshole translator kept mistranslating on purpose because he didn’t want friendly relations between Iranians and Americans (long story regarding a love triangle with an Iranian woman.)

    So allegedly the hostage taking fiasco was because of an asshole named John doe.

    If you buy the BS your government allegedly puts out you should have no problem believing the true story I just told you

  2. When the KAL flight was shot down a key question was where did the Russians think the regularly scheduled KAL flight was?

    Similarly this was a regularly scheduled flight and where did the Vincennes think the regularly scheduled flight was? ( which is why the Iranians think it was deliberate)

  3. Thanks for this post . I think it’s important to give some context, especially for younger readers. Also, you, sir, have matured over the years — I don’t think you’d have written a post like this five yearsago. Kudos!

  4. Yeah I can totally confirm Iran hates us. Especially the way Persians have flooded into and colonized SoCal – definitely clear proof of that ! Smh …

  5. Great post, there should be more contextual posts such as this one. Tired of hearing the “Why do they hate us?” without looking in the mirror. Good work!

  6. A useful, illuminating post. Thanks for sharing this information. There’s obviously far more to U.S.-Iran relations than this one incident, with actions, outrages and miscalculations on both sides. But this is one piece of the puzzle that most folks are unfamiliar with.

    For those who are interested, here’s a great 2013 New Yorker article on Suleimani and his roles in U.S.-Iran antagonism and sporadic cooperation:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander?verso=true

  7. It’s tough to know intention of governments which is exactly why a random gunboat in the Straight of Hormuz shooting down a plane (any plane) can be interpreted as a national act of aggression. It’s also the reason we shouldn’t forget these events, they directly affect how today’s actions are interpreted.

  8. Without Soleimani, Iraq and Syria would be overrun with Al-Qaeda and ISIL/ISIS/Daesh types more than they were. While he was a thorn in the side of the US and the Israelis and the Saudis, you have to wonder who your friends are and who Trump is supporting in deciding to assassinate such a senior military official of a foreign country who was working to keep status quo state powers in power and undermining Al-Qaeda and ISIL/ISIS types.

    Can you imagine how it would go if the Iranians assassinated the head of US Central Command upon such a Senior US General landing in Djibouti?

    Let’s just hope that the Iranian leadership isn’t as much of a loose cannon as President Trump (and his SIL) who have been so eager to kiss up to Prince (founder of the American mercenary organization formerly known as Blackwater) and Prince MBS of Saudi Arabia.

  9. OJS, are you always the Trump-Can-Do-No-Wrong troll?

    Your response to my post seems to confirm that you are.

    The Bush and Obama heads on Iranian security matters are also not fans of what Trump did here. But maybe Trump’s mad-dog behavior works in ways that are seen as most probably being unproductive or even counterproductive for American strategic interests.

    Trump has some very questionable bedfellows and fellow travelers.

  10. Troll1 is pro-Soleimani and is looking to the leadership of Iran for reasonableness. He is a perfect example of Trump Derangement Syndrome. What a clown

  11. Your comments with regard to Syria being a proxy war between The US and Iran/Others are completely absurd and have no relevance to the shooting down of an Iran Air flight bound for Dubai years earlier. US involvement in Syria has been very limited, mainly focussed on the North of Syria against ISIS, working with the Kurds and others. It is Russia and Hezbollah that has assisted Assad and The US has not confronted, in the main, these activities.

    Next time you wish to incorporate an aircraft story just to generate content & traffic for your website, I suggest you make your assertions reasonably credible!

  12. The Iranians had very good cause to loathe and despise the USA. Flight 655 simply served to reinforce those reasons, as well as to show to the rest of the world that the US is not a benign force, and should NEVER be trusted. Evil intent masquerading as an accident.

  13. @Paolo said “US is not a benign force”. I take that to mean that you hate the USA, USA Flag, USA people (except for fellow USA haters), and everything USA. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  14. Sorry, Gary but youR attempt to educate completely leaves out the larger context of the time period. Please reference this broader history that describe the Iranians placing sea mines into the Persian Gulf and nearly sinking a US ship in the preceding months: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2019/06/14/the-us-and-iran-have-engaged-in-deadly-combat-before-over-gulf-tanker-attacks-heres-what-happened/

    Probably best to stick to travel blogging unless you understand the history and communicate context. Otherwise you could be misinterpreted as an Iranian troll.

  15. The part that I find shameful is that the US government via its foreign policy (incl. past covert operations) has a number of times tried to stymie legitimate aspirations of other nations for its own financial (?) advantage. Is anyone surprised that leads to hate and wars? Do other people not deserve prosperity and discovering their own path? FYI. this is by no means a defense of the Iranian regime which is very much like a corrupt dictatorship.

    I remember when Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt after God knows how many years suppressing his people. And because the democratic process elected a government opposed to the US…well you know who the US supports in Egypt now. I am a firm believer in making friends via respect and fairness and not bullying and hate. Would we want a government like that for our country??

  16. @Other Just Saying, so sorry that Hitler killed himself. I know you’ve never gotten over it. But maybe if your hard-on for Trump can bring you closer to Putin, then your world will be a much happier one. Sorry for your indifferent education. Also, about time you read up on the perils of opioid addiction.

  17. @Paolo: Then what do you like about United States? Name a few major things? It should be pretty easy, since you said “It goes without saying”.

    Maybe the issue is that you should do some self examination. Back when I was in college, I read a book that stated that every day a person should take about 30 minutes a day and write down a topic and then draw lines/arrows to what that topic was associated. Doing this is a form of meditation and organizes the mind. Maybe you should try that with the USA flag, patriotism, USA history, the founding of USA….. In any case, based on you many posts, I am willing to bet most of your associations are negative.

  18. OJS is just a perfect example of the Trump-can-do-no-wrong troll and how that kind of personality isn’t so far removed from Trump with his questionable attacks and mad dog ways.

    OJS, Trump is Troll1, whether or not he is on Air Force One, Marine One or spending 20+% of his days as President hanging out at golf courses or his commercial properties. Trump’s attack at Baghdad International Airport to assassinate a senior Iranian general is the geopolitical equivalent of a troll attack but one using military force. I hope the Iranian regime doesn’t take the Trump troll bait and is a more rational state actor in the international arena than Trump with his mad dog ways on the international stage.

  19. OJS is just the latest among the RATS (RAcist Trump Supporters) who don’t think the current occupant of the WH can do any wrong (the true TDS), and ignore his self-enrichment, the cheating, the racism, the lying, the regressive policies. History will not judge him kindly (nor is the present). Fortunately most are not educated enough to be readers of the leading travel blogs – 8Chan is more their style.

  20. @Sajer Guy – maybe actually read what I wrote before suggesting I don’t understand the context, you flag Iranians placing sea mines as crucial information to convey and I wrote “a US ship struck an Iranian mine in April 1988.”

    Apology accepted.

  21. UA-NYC (AKA Manhattan Waterbug) just flew into the blog again with random non sequitur insults. Paradoxically and sadly, he believes he is a voice for tolerance passing judgement on “Deplorables”. WTH: if you are a waterbug, which is way down on the list of reincarnations, you have to find some way to feel superior to someone.

  22. LOL. We found one. “Asshole” is actually lower on the list of incarnations than waterbugs.

  23. @GuWonder. I am going to trigger you again. I am actually strongly supportive of Israel. I am sure that statement will make you go nuclear, which is a play on words because lefties have long believed that Iran has every right to have the nuclear bomb (with nice intercontinental ballistic missiles), and Iranian leaders have been threatening to blow Israel (which they call the little Satan) off the face of the map for as long as I can remember.

  24. @topsyturvy. I am not a big fan of Moslem Brotherhood associated Mohamed Morsi. He believed in the strong form of Sharia law which included subjugating women, killing gays, persecuting the Coptic Christians, and resuming the jihad against Israel. In fact, while he was in office, he started re-militarizing the Sinai Peninsula.

  25. To all,

    It is funny how the so-called tolerant Kerry and Hillary were strongly supportive of Morsi and very critical of Israel. I even remember watching Kerry “accidentally” being caught on live mike, in a national newsroom, threatening Israel. Hillary even kissed PLO’s Suha Arafat on the lips.

    Given the increasingly anti-Semitic Democrat party, increasing anti-Semitic Europe, and continuing hostility from nations like Iran, Israel must survive, not just because it is the Jewish homeland, but also because it is a place for Jewish people to go when all other countries have abandoned them.

    Those people screaming the Trump is Hitler, when he is the most pro-Israel President in recent memory, are supporting countries, like Iran, that would drive Israel into the ocean and kill or subjugate the Jews living there. To them, I say never again: I support Israel and pro-Israel Trump.

    Going back to 2016, I did not particularly like Trump (because I thought he was a New York liberal), but I was never going to vote for Hillary, because I thought she was going to be anti-Israel. Trump keeping his promise on judges and his conservative policies have been a pleasant surprise to me.

    Why is this relevant here, because support Iran is also supporting Iran’s anti-Israel policies. And we are discussing Iran here, sort of.

  26. Seems like the US unilaterally pulling out of the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions (which has put their economy into a deep recession), labeling the revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization and killing their top general who was one of the most powerful people in Iran may have a hell of a lot more to do with Iranian distrust of the US than an event from over 30 years ago. Sorry if those factors aren’t related to travel.

  27. @Bill: Per Julia Frifield, the State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs 11/1/15 letter to Mike Pompeo, then in the House of Representatives. “….The Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JCPOA represents political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China), and the European Union….” Google it. That right folks, Iran never even signed the JCPOA and JCPOA is not legally binding. What a joke.

  28. @OJS oh please these commitments were signed by several countries. Lets not pretend the agreement was not valid. It most certainly was. Trump pulled out of it. Under domestic law he is able to do so. Whether or not he violated international law is up for debate, but your statement that something binding did not exist is just right wing nonsense.

  29. @Bill. Do you read? According to the Obama State Department, Iran did not sign it. LOL: Apparently not, reading is apparently only a right wing skill.

  30. I do not take take the Manhattan Waterbug (who self identifies as UA-NYC) seriously. For example, I think Lamar Jackson is the best QB in the in the league this year. The Waterbug has already told me in previous posts that my liking black QBs is a cover for inherent racism. However, I am sure that if I liked Pactrick Mahomes instead, the Waterbug would most likely call that racism too since Mahomes is white. I get it, in the Middle-ages people like the Waterbug used to throw witches into the river. If they drowned, they were not witches. If they floated, they were witches and were burned. Minds that are full of hatred are always the same. Wait, what am I saying, Waterbugs do not have minds, they are just bugs of instinct.

  31. OJS – was about to make a point about your ‘Murica First-ism and lack of any view beyond its borders, but first, look up “Pat Mahomes” (note: not the football player) if your fat fingers and feeble mind are able to properly type, and then come back and correct your above post.

    What a tool.

  32. OJS,

    Your unhinged status as troll is showing yet again. Are you attempting to play like Trump? You’re doing a good job of just that, if of nothing else.

  33. Let’s not forget how the USA has not apologised for killing so many civilians. IIRC the captain of the ship got awarded.
    You also disregard the way the CIA toppled a democratically elected leader in the 50s and installed the shah as a puppet in his place which is where a lot of the resentment started flaring from.

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