Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
An Iranian man holds a portrait of his brother who was killed when a US warship shot down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988.
An Iranian man holds a portrait of his brother who was killed when a US warship shot down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988.

US 'unlikely to repeat mistake' of Iran passenger jet shooting

The incident, which happened 24 years ago, killed 290 civilians, including 13 Emiratis, and is regarded as one of the worst military errors in modern history.

DUBAI //  The Iran Air disaster of 1988 in which a US warship shot down an Iranian passenger jet is unlikely to happen again - despite tensions between the US and Iran, analysts say.

The incident, which happened 24 years ago, killed 290 civilians and is regarded as one of the worst military errors in modern history.

The USS Vincennes had engaged in small arms fire with several Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz and fired on and destroyed what it had believed was an F-14 fighter jet.

In fact, the aircraft was Iran Air flight 655, from Tehran to Dubai, carrying 290 passengers and crew. All onboard, including 66 children, died in the crash.

In March this year, the US Navy announced it was bolstering the presence of the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf amid rising tensions with Iran. Analysts said improved communications systems made it unlikely that another "fog of war" mishap would occur.

"With improved detection systems, it's unlikely to happen again," said Theodore Karasik, the research director at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

"But in a hyper-charged environment, you never know. Mistakes can be made."

The incident caused a backlash against the US, not only from Iran but also from the Emirates, as there were 13 UAE nationals on the flight when it was shot down.

It caused ramifications for many years, with the US agreeing only in 1996 to pay Iran a settlement of US$131.8 million (Dh484.12m), a proportion of which was to compensate the families of victims.

However, there was never an admission of guilt on the part of the US government and, in 1990, the former captain of the Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, earned a high-profile award, the Legion of Merit, for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer".

Before shooting down flight IR655, the crew of the Vincennes had mistakenly identified the jet as descending, as a warplane might do, rather than ascending. The ship had also broadcast challenges to the aircraft on military frequencies it was not equipped to receive and commercial frequencies, which could have been directed at any aircraft in the area.

The passenger jet was itself broadcasting in English and Persian to Bandar Abbas but the Vincennes did not have the capacity to monitor common civil aviation frequencies other than distress frequencies. Immediately after the incident, US Navy warships were given radios which could enable them to do so, and better access to flight details.

Since the IR655 disaster, the Iranian government has maintained that the incident was deliberate. Professor Ali Ansari, a professor in Iranian History at St Andrews University, Scotland, said the attitude of the captain was partly to blame.

"It wasn't deliberate, but I think it was more than an accident," he said. "The commander of the USS Vincennes was looking for a fight. I certainly don't think he deserved a medal for it."

However, he said that it was doubtful that the event could recur, given precautions taken after the incident. "I think they have learned their lesson," he said. "I would be very surprised if something happened like this again."

Attempts to contact Mr Rogers for comment through the US Navy press office were unsuccessful.

Iranian expatriates said that the disaster had largely been forgotten. Reza Samadipour, 43, the head of the secretariat at the Iranian Business Council in Dubai, said there was no concern it could be repeated. "This was something that had never happened before and probably will never happen again," he said.

A spokesman for the Dubai office of Iran Air declined to comment. However, he confirmed that despite its history, the flight name IR655 was still in use.


Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 A view of a defaced portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korean rally on the 102nd birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in central Seoul. Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

Best photography from around the world, April 15

The National View's photo editors pick the best images of the day from around the world.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National