x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

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.

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.

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.

mcroucher@thenational.ae