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How the downing of Iran Air flight 655 still sparks US-Iran enmity

A US Navy ship shot down the civilian airliner 34 years ago, a tragic event that Americans forget but Iranians never will.

Upon winning the June election stacked in his favor, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president-elect, has minced few words and left little wiggle room for an easing of animosity between Tehran and Washington.

While Raisi pledged to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for relief from “all oppressive [U.S.] sanctions,” he called the proposed curtailment of Iran’s missile program and its support for regional militias “not negotiable.”

Although Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will continue pulling the strings in the theocracy, as he has since 1989, Raisi’s low-turnout victory and the election of like-minded hardliners to top government positions signals the political demise of Iranian moderates (a faction led by current president Hassan Rouhani) after former American president Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions.

This tension and deep mistrust, however, is not novel, but historic. Thirty-four years ago this month, on July 3, a critical moment amid decades of U.S.-Iranian enmity unfolded. The distrust generated from the event rivals even that of the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup that overthrew a democratically elected premier in order to reimpose the despotic shah.

On September 22, 1980, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in an attempt to win back territory and prevent the exporting of Shi’a revolutions from a post-revolutionary Iran that Saddam perceived as chaotic and weak. Seven years after the Iraqi invasion, with the conflict stalemated more than ever, both countries began attacking oil tankers (neutral or not) that transited the Persian Gulf in an attempt to disrupt their respective adversary’s lifeline. To safeguard the transit of oil — a vital American interest at the time — U.S. President Ronald Reagan authorized the American reflagging of Kuwaiti-owned tankers to deter future Iranian attacks and end the war via a negotiated settlement.

American involvement deepened in late September 1987, when U.S. pilots spotted the ship, Iran Ajr, laying mines in the Gulf. Although SEAL teams boarded and destroyed the ship, they could not prevent the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts from hitting one of the Iran Ajr mines seven months later during a convoy escort, injuring the ship and its crew. In retaliation, the U.S. Navy attacked high-profile Iranian targets throughout the Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis. Additionally, Reagan reformed the U.S. military’s rules of engagement to authorize force against Iranian warships that were actively attacking or trying to harm neutral shipping.

Nearly a month after Praying Mantis, in May 1988, the three-year-old USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, was deployed to the Gulf. The $1 billion warship was affectionately termed “Robocruiser” because of its technological sophistication that enabled itto track air and surface threats while seamlessly engaging them.

One day before the 1988 Fourth of July holiday, the Vincennes deployed a helicopter to investigate reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats harassing neutral merchant ships. When commanding officer Capt. Will Chapel Rogers received word that one of the Iranian boats had fired ten rounds at the probing helicopter, he swung his ship around and steamed toward the speedboats. In doing so, he violated Reagan’s rules of engagement by crossing into Iranian waters.

At 9:43 am, the Vincennes opened fire on the Iranian boats just as Iran Air Flight 655 departed from Bandar Abbas, Iran, headed for Dubai. The plane embarked on a routine normal ascent, except the pilot didn’t know he was flying his Airbus A300 over a military engagement. Radar operators on the Vincennes mistook the commercial flight for an Iranian F-14 fighter jet.

After dispatching multiple radio warnings, and receiving no response, Rogers believed the incoming aircraft and the engagement with IRGC speedboats signaled an incoming hydra-headed Iranian attack on American naval forces. Not wanting to risk the lives of his crew by letting the aircraft get too close and strike his ship, Rogers authorized permission for the Vincennes crew to fire two surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft at 9:45 am. Seconds later, the plane exploded. Its remnants — and the remains of 290 passengers — crashed into the Gulf.

At Camp David celebrating the Fourth of July, Reagan called the incident “a terrible human tragedy” but escaped offering a full apology by saying that the Vincennes took “proper defensive action” and the incident could have been avoided if Iran had accepted a ceasefire years before. From the Pentagon’s press room, spokesman Dan Howard signaled the Navy’s ultimate decision to rally behind the Vincennes’ captain and crew. “The commander had…very few minutes in which to make a very crucial decision that was certainly life-or-death for [him] and for his ship and for his crew,” Howard explained. “And he had to make that decision based upon the information available to him at the time.”

Howard’s statement became the Navy’s official response. The official investigation attributed the tragedy to the fog of war, absolving “any U.S. Naval personnel” of negligence or “culpable conduct.” Rogers correctly prioritized the defense of his crew and ship above all other considerations, the report rationalized, which is why he later received the Legion of Merit award for his actions and remained the ship’s commander following the incident.

More than 30 years later, the incident has receded from American memory. The same cannot be said in Iran. At the time, Iranian authorities considered it a deliberate “barbaric massacre” and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Iranians to “go to the war fronts and fight against America.” But the incident gave senior Iranian leadership pause for reflection. They believed the attack was proof that America had entered the war on Iraq’s side and would kill as many Iranians as necessary to defeat the Islamic Republic. Days after the attack, Tehran saw no choice but to drink the “cup of poison,” as Khomeini put it, and accept a ceasefire. The Iran-Iraq War was over.

But the incident’s influence is far from over. Iranian state media broadcasts mourners on a ship near the crash site throwing flowers into the water and weeping in memory of those killed. When Trump threatened to destroy “52 Iranian sites” if Iran retaliated for the Soleimani assassination, because it equated the number of Americans held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981, Rouhani replied: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655.”

As new administrations in both countries try erecting guidelines for future interactions, the Biden administration must remember that both countries are not fully absolved of building mistrust and acrimony. Going forward, the administration should plainly announce its intentions and acknowledge that the United States wants a stable, predictable relationship with Iran but only if it moderates its destabilizing, inter-state behavior. Official Washington should avoid any preconceptions that a relationship with Tehran can be “reset” overnight. It will take decades — and fundamental reorientations within each nation’s geopolitical psyche — to create a relationship grounded in non-belligerence and confidence, just as it has taken years to build a relationship grounded in the converse.

On a more tactical level, the scale and intensity of “unsafe and unprofessional interactions” with Iranian naval vessels in recent months underscore the need for U.S. Navy captains and crews to continue acting responsively and vigilantly to avoid unnecessary collisions, clashes, and deaths from the “fog of war” that would only exacerbate the decades of mistrust.

Trigger fingers — both in the Situation Room and at sea — need not apply.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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