25 Years Ago: U.S. Shot Down Iranian Civilian Jetliner

Terrorism & Tyranny book cover 2889153688_02bf4627ab_o

Today is the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Navy shooting down an Iranian passenger jet.  Following is the writeup on the shootdown from my 2003 book, Terrorism & Tyranny:

In the wake of the Iranian arms debacle, the Reagan administration sent the U.S. Navy to patrol the Persian Gulf—in part to reassure Arab nations that the U.S. government was not siding with Iran in the Iraq-Iran War. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, the most advanced missile frigate in the U.S. Navy, shot down an Iranian Airbus A-300 flying from Iran to Dubai, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. After the shootdown of the civilian airliner, Newsweek noted that, “the men of the Vincennes were all awarded combat action ribbons. Commander Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, even won the navy’s Commendation Medal for ‘heroic achievement,’ for his ‘ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire,’ enabling him to ‘quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.’” Captain Will Rogers III received the Legion of Merit for his “outstanding service” as commander of the Vincennes. Newsweek noted that the incident was a “professional disgrace” for the U.S. Navy: “The navy’s most expensive surface warship, designed to track and shoot down as many as 200 incoming missiles at once, had blown apart an innocent civilian airliner in its first time in combat.” A Navy commission that investigated the incident scrupulously avoided discovering facts or asking questions that would impugn the official explanation. The U.S. government proceeded to lie about the position of the Vincennes when it launched its attack (claiming it was in international waters, when it was actually in Iranian territorial waters), claiming the Vincennes acted in self-defense (Vincennes was the aggressor against a handful of diddly speed boats), claiming the targeted plane was at a lower altitude and descending toward the Vincennes (it was higher and rising as would a commercial airliner), and claiming the Airbus was outside the established corridor for commercial flights (it was flying where it was supposed to fly).  Two other U.S. Navy ships correctly identified the Iranian plane as a civilian airliner before the shootdown. President Reagan issued a statement on the same day: “This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families. . . . We deeply regret any loss of life.” The U.S. government eventually paid compensation both to the survivors and the Iranian government. Vice President George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, who was running for President at the time, declared when asked about the shootdown: “I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don’t care what the facts are.” Bush went to the United Nations, where he defended the U.S. action by denouncing Iranian aggression. Bush falsely claimed, as Newsweek reported, “that the Vincennes had rushed to defend a merchantman under attack by Iran.”

The U.S. government saw the incident as an accident that, after a few days of unpleasant news, could be swept in the dustbin. The New York Times noted in an article ten years after the attack: “For the Iranians, the shootdown still represents one of the most heinous entries on the list of U.S. ‘crimes’ against their country in the last 50 years—one that became even more monstrous in their eyes when two years later the U.S. Navy decorated two of the vessel’s commanders instead of punishing them immediately.” Iranian officials continued to denounce the shootdown as “an act of state terrorism.”


For a more details analysis of the shootdown, see this website.


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One Response to 25 Years Ago: U.S. Shot Down Iranian Civilian Jetliner

  1. Elaine July 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Jim, you are really the very few who have consciences from America. Sad they don’t even know their govt. shot down civilian jets.