Updated: January 8, 2020 9:42:17 am
After President Donald Trump posted on Twitter a threat to target “52 Iranian sites” if Iran attacked US citizens or assets, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has responded by reminding Trump of “the number 290” and “IR655”.
“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655 Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Rouhani tweeted late on Monday (India time). In his tweet, Trump mentioned that the targeted 52 Iranian sites “represent(ed) the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago” — a reference to the 1979-81 siege of the US embassy in Tehran.
ROUHANI’S 290: The 290 mentioned by Rouhani is the number of people killed after a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz shot down an Iranian passenger airliner — Iran Air Flight IR655 from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai — over Iranian territorial waters on July 3, 1988. Among those killed were 66 children.
The US said the airliner had been targeted after the commander of the warship mistook it for an Iranian fighter jet on a hostile mission. President Ronald Reagan expressed “deep regret” for the loss of lives.
According to a report and timeline published by The New York Times (above) on the morning after the mishap, based on a briefing at the Pentagon by then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William J Crowe Jr, this is what happened:
IR655 took off from Bandar Abbas at 10.15 am local time, on the second leg of its Tehran-Bandar Abbas-Dubai journey. The USS Vincennes was in the Strait of Hormuz, along with the USS Montgomery. The Iran-Iraq war was still on. Iran too, had several ships out on the water — and according to the American account, about five minutes before IR655 took off, one of a group of Iranian gunboats had fired at a helicopter from the Vincennes. The boats had then rushed towards the Vincennes, as if to fire, according to the US account, prompting both the Vincennes and the Montgomery to open fire, sinking two of the boats.
At 10.47 am, the US Navy detected an “aircraft headed directly for Vincennes on a constant bearing at high speed”, The NYT report quoted Adm. Crowe as having said. Beginning 10.49 am, several warnings were sent “on both military and civilian distress signals”, according to the US account, “but the aircraft neither answered nor changed its course’’.
Meanwhile, radar operators aboard the Vincennes had concluded that the plane was an F-14, one of the world’s most powerful fighters at the time. “The aircraft was declared hostile at 10.51 am,’’ Adm. Crowe said. “At 10.54 am, when the aircraft was about nine miles away, Vincennes fired two Standard surface-to-air missiles, at least one of which hit at an approximate range of six miles.’’
AFTERMATH: In a diplomatic note sent to Iran, President Reagan described the incident as a “terrible human tragedy”, and expressed “deep regret”, “sympathy and condolences”. However, he defended the action taken by the commander of the Vincennes, William C Rogers III, saying the airliner was “headed directly” for the warship, which had fired to protect itself.
A US Navy investigation board concluded that the downing had been a mistake, but that “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 for several hours, and where IRGC (Islamic Revolutinary Guard Corps) boats were actively engaged in armed conflict with US naval vessels.”
Iran did not accept that there had been a mistake — it said that the airliner was shot down even though its aircraft identification transponder was squawking in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian commercial aircraft. In a submission to the International Court of Justice it said the US action “in shooting down IR655, and its response to this criminal act, all involve violations of international law of the most serious kind”.
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