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Tragedy and irony: In accidental Iranian downing of Ukrainian plane, shades of a US mistake 30 years ago

Ironically, Rouhani had reminded the US of that tragedy in a tweet on January 6, when he had pointedly asked President Trump to "remember the number 290", and hashtagged "IR655", the number of the Iran Air flight that the US missile had brought down on that occasion.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 13, 2020 7:41:13 am
Tragedy and irony: In accidental Iranian downing of Ukrainian plane, shades of a US mistake 30 years ago General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed after take-off from Iran’s Imam Khomeini airport. (Reuters Photo)

Iran has admitted that it accidentally shot down Ukrainian passenger jet PS752, killing all 176 people on board. President Hassan Rouhani has blamed “human error”, and “deeply regretted” his country’s “unforgiveable mistake”.

“…Investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people. Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake. #PS752 The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake… I offer my sincerest condolences,” he posted on Twitter on Saturday (January 11).

Iran’s mistake and President Rouhani’s contrition mirror another very similar tragedy that took place more than 30 years ago in the region — when 290 people, including 66 children, lost their lives due to a mistake made by a United States Navy commander in the Strait of Hormuz, for which then American President Ronald Reagan had expressed “deep regret”.

Ironically, Rouhani had reminded the US of that tragedy in a tweet on January 6, when he had pointedly asked President Donald Trump to “remember the number 290”, and hashtagged “IR655”, the number of the Iran Air flight that the US missile had brought down on that occasion.

The US had said at the time that the airliner had been targeted after the warship mistook it for an Iranian fighter jet on a hostile mission.

Iran had refused to accept the American explanation, saying the airliner had been shot down even though its aircraft identification transponder was squawking in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian commercial aircraft.

ukraine plane crash, iran admits shooting it down View of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed after take-off from Iran’s Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran. (Reuters)

How exactly did the incident take place?

According to a report and timeline published by The New York Times on the morning after the mishap, based on a briefing at the Pentagon by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J Crowe Jr, this is what happened:

At 10.15 am local time on July 3, 1988, Flight IR655, an Airbus A300, took off from Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city located on the Strait of Hormuz that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman, on the second leg of its Tehran-Bandar Abbas-Dubai journey.

The USS Vincennes, a 9,600-tonne US Navy cruiser, was in the Strait of Hormuz at the time, along with the USS Montgomery, a 4,200-tonne frigate. The Iran-Iraq war was still on (it ended the following month of 1988), and US warships were in Gulf waters to escort US-flagged Kuwaiti tankers, and to keep a watch on Iran’s activities.

Iran too, had several ships out on the water — and according to the American account, about five minutes before IR655 took off from Bandar Abbas (i.e., about 10.10 am), one of a group of small Iranian gunboats had fired at a helicopter from the Vincennes.

The cruiser had then turned to engage the gunboats and, in response, the gunboats had sped towards the Vincennes, as if to fire, according to the US military account.

Both the Vincennes and the Montgomery had then opened fire with five-inch guns, sinking two Iranian boats and damaging a third. The time then, according to the US account, was 10.42 am.

At 10.47 am, while still engaged with the Iranian boats, equipment onboard the Vincennes detected an approaching aircraft.

“The aircraft headed directly for Vincennes on a constant bearing at high speed, approximately 450 knots,” The New York Times report quoted Adm. Crowe as having said. “A warning was sent on both military and civilian distress signals beginning at 10.49 am. This procedure was repeated several times, but the aircraft neither answered nor changed its course.”

According to the American account, crew on board the Vincennes noted that the aircraft was dropping in altitude and increasing its speed. At 10.51 am, it was warned again that it was approaching an American warship. Altogether, Adm. Crowe said, the plane was warned three times on the civilian distress channel and four times on the military channel.

Meanwhile, radar operators aboard the Vincennes had concluded that the inbound plane was an F-14, one of the world’s most powerful fighters at the time. About 80 of the American-built war jets had been delivered to Iran in the 1970s when the Shah’s government in Teheran (which was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution of 1979) was a US ally.

As per the US account, F-14 movements had been observed above Iran at the time, and in the prevailing highly tense situation, US commanders in the Gulf had been alerted that “Iranian units might attempt to carry out attacks against our forces over the Fourth of July holiday period”.

“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.”

The NYT report quoted Iranian press agencies as saying the plane was hit at 7,500 feet and that it crashed into the sea. Adm. Crowe said the crash site was inside Iranian territorial waters and that American ships had not gone there to assist in search-and-rescue efforts.

ukraine plane crash, iran admits shooting it down A security official examines debris at the site of the Ukraine International Airlines crash on the outskirts of Tehran. (New York Times)

What did the US say after the tragedy?

President Reagan sent a diplomatic note to Iran that said: “This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families. The Defense Department will conduct a full investigation. We deeply regret any loss of life.”

He defended the action taken by the commander of the Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, saying the civilian airliner was “headed directly” for the warship, “which was at the time engaged with five Iranian Boghammar boats that had attacked our forces”. After the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes had “followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures”, and fired to protect itself.

The Washington Post reported that when asked if he considered his message to Tehran an apology, President Reagan replied, “Yes”.

This report also said that US Defence Department officials had revealed that “the Airbus may have been flying higher than originally believed and that the military aircraft signal the Vincennes reported receiving may have come from a separate plane”.

A US Navy investigation board under Rear Admiral William M Fogarty concluded that the downing was 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 Revolutionary Guard Corps) boats were actively engaged in armed conflict with US naval vessels.”

How did the Iranians react?

Iran has maintained that the airliner was downed intentionally. It did not accept that there had been a mistake — and argued that even if it were to be conceded that there was one, the US action still amounted to criminal negligence and recklessness.

In a memorial submitted to the International Court of Justice in 1990, Tehran said: “…It is apparent that the manner of operations of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf (which continue to this day), the action of the United States 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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