What Iran Air Flight 655 says about America’s role in the Middle East

Relatives of victims killed on Iran Air 655 gather for a 2003 ceremony. (AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives of victims killed on Iran Air 655 in 1988 gathered for a ceremony in 2003. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 1988, the U.S. Navy ship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian flight, Iran Air 655, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. The incident has hung over U.S.-Iranian relations for 25 years and remains extremely sensitive. Toby Craig Jones, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University who focuses on U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, argues that the incident is a symbol and product of the U.S. strategy in the Gulf, where militarization and energy policies can often blur. What follows is from part of a research project by Jones on oil and U.S. foreign policy.

Seven minutes after takeoff on July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 plunged into the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. The flight was to be a routine “milk run,” a regularly scheduled transit ferrying business people and families from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai. Instead, on a clear mid summer morning, the plane was torn from the sky, brought down by two American anti-aircraft missiles. The USS Vincennes, a high-tech missile cruiser that had been dispatched to the Gulf only weeks before, delivered the fatal blow. The first missile cut the plane in two and severed its left wing. The second shredded it and passengers with searing shrapnel. (See Lee Allen Zatarain's The Tanker War, page 326.) Those not killed immediately plunged over 14,000 feet, where they died on impact.

A little over six weeks after the attack, the U.S. Department of Defense released a 150-page incident report that remarked [that] the downing of Flight 655 was “a tragic and regrettable accident,” the unfortunate outcome of a complicated “combat environment.” American military and political leaders argued it was a series of inadvertent mistakes, “the fog of war,” and especially Iranian aggression that led to catastrophe. The Vincennes, captained by William C. Rogers and managed by an inexperienced crew, was outfitted with a sophisticated new computerized command and control system known as Aegis that was untested in battle. At the time of the attack, Rogers had ordered the Vincennes and his ship’s helicopter to pursue and fire on several Iranian gunboats, which had reportedly been harassing merchant shipping moments earlier. Flight 655 departed from Bandar Abbas on a flight-path that would have taken it directly over the battle being waged below.

While gunning at Iranian speedboats on the surface waters of the Gulf, the crew of the Vincennes tracked Flight 655 above. Almost immediately, they wrongly identified it as an F-14 fighter. Their confusion was partly because the passenger jet had taken off from a dual-use military and civilian airfield. In the midst of battle, they assumed Iran had scrambled a single fighter jet in defense of the small naval craft. Compounding the original error, they made even more crucial mistakes. Most importantly, the crew wrongly determined that the flight was descending toward the ship, as if to launch a bombing run, when in fact it was climbing. It was a perplexing mistake. With data from the ship’s computer clearly showing Flight 655 as gaining altitude, it remains a mystery why the ships’ technicians claimed otherwise. Investigators determined the misreading of the ship’s data and the “tragic” decision to fire had been the product of combat stress brought on by Iranian aggression. Those later looking to deflect American responsibility honed in on Iran’s alleged bad behavior. In hearings held before the U.S. Senate in September Admiral Robert Kelly, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that Iran “must share some responsibility for this tragedy,” a sentiment that drew broad support from those present as well as from the American public.

In its initial report, the Pentagon withheld key details of the incident, particularly the chain of events that led to it. Newsweek magazine later alleged that the military, protecting itself, engaged in a fraudulent cover-up. They wrote that while the Iranian gunboats may have been harassing merchant shipping, they had then disengaged and were in full retreat in the face of superior American firepower. After the gunboats began their initial withdrawal, the American commander in Bahrain ordered U.S. forces to break off their pursuit. Captain Rogers, according to Newsweek's story, ignored the order. He also ignored the military’s standing rules of engagement that limited the American use of deadly force to defensive measures. It was the Vincennes, not the Iranian gunboats that provoked the clash between them. Rogers had the Vincennes pursue the gunboats into Iranian sovereign waters, from which it launched the two missiles that felled Flight 655.

David Carlson, who commanded the cruiser USS Sides, and was in supporting role of and less than 20 nautical miles from Vincennes when it launched its attack, denied that the Iranians had been especially aggressive. Carlson later remarked that there “was no coordinated attack involving” the Iranian gunboats. He even challenged the prevailing assumption that the Iranian posture in the Gulf was threatening more generally. He reflected, “my experience was that the conduct of the Iranian military forces in the month preceding the incident was pointedly non-threatening.” While Carlson conceded that he thought the flight might have been an F-14 at the time, several of his crew rightly identified it as a civilian aircraft. Either way, Carlson never believed Flight 655 posed a risk and watched in horror as the Vincennes launched its missiles.

In disputing more apologetic accounts that sought to justify the Vincennes’s choices, the Sides’ commander offered a much less flattering analysis. “Having watched the performance of the Vincennes for a month before the incident,” he recalled that his “impression was clearly that an atmosphere of restraint was not her strong suit.” Revealing that his colleagues had taken to calling the Vincennes “Robo Cruiser” well before July 3, Carlson suggested that his “guess was that the crew of the Vincennes felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis [the ship’s new computerized system] ... and that they hankered for an opportunity to show their stuff.” Carlson’s was a damning account, although perhaps it was one that could be dismissed as the product of competing egos among rival commanders in the Gulf. Whatever happened on the bridge of the Vincennes that led Rogers to make a terrible choice, the significance of Flight 655’s fate had as much to do with the broader political and political economic forces at work in the region and in the moment that made the tragedy possible in the first place.

The downing of Flight 655 marked a critical moment in the late 20th century histories of the Gulf and to the shifting relationship between energy, the global political economy, and modern war. The attack ushered in the beginning of the end of what had been a long and bloody war between Iran and Iraq. Convinced that the U.S., which had ramped up its military presence in the region in 1986, was committed to their defeat, and with Iraq having fully embraced the use of chemical weapons, Iranian leaders agreed to a United Nations-backed ceasefire in late July, just three weeks after the incident. While U.S. officials sought to deflect criticism and minimize their responsibility, the reality was that the tragedy helped serve American interests. The United States threw its support behind the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad and over the course of the 1980s its levels of support for the Iraq war machine, including the direct projection of American military might, deepened considerably.

By the summer of 1988, the U.S. Navy was patrolling the Gulf, shepherding oil tankers as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz, had established an elaborate anti-Iranian surveillance and policing network, and was trading shots with the Iranian Navy. Little reported at the time, just months before the July attack the U.S. staged its largest Naval confrontation since World War II against Iran. American antagonisms and work to thwart Iranian mobility in the Gulf have remained in place ever since. After the war was over, and after the United States turned on its former Iraqi partners, the American commitment to maintaining a large military in the Middle East further intensified. So too would the commitment to its use of force and to what should be understood as the genesis of one long American war in the Middle East.

The attack on Flight 655 also reflected something more complex and uncertain about the character of the broader conflict that was settling in. While the U.S. and its allies would go on to wage conventional campaigns in Kuwait in 1991 and again in Iraq in 2003, the moments in between and after can better be understand as a kind of permanent quasi-war – not war, but also not its absence. The condition of almost war, in which the military was engaged in hostilities that aimed to “contain” Iran, was already in place in the late 1980s. Indeed, the lack of certainty around the United States’ strategic objectives, and ambiguity about the US Navy’s mission in 1988 in particular, are crucial to understanding what was going on when the Vincennes shot down Flight 655.

Much of the hand-wringing inside the United States government around that incident was framed around that claim that “war begets accidents.” Commander Carlson’s remarks in rebuttal to such thinking – “that is axiomatic, but we were not at war" – reflected both the uncertainty of the moment and also drew attention to the exceptionally high human stakes of strategic uncertainty.

In addition to uncertainties about the U.S. mission and how it should behave were broader questions about how it arrived at precisely that point and how we should think about the character of the region’s emerging political order, one in which violence steadily intensified and in which war was not exceptional, but a permanent structural feature of the order of things. The downing of Flight 655 was rooted in a shifting politics around energy, and, in the making of a regional order in the 1980s in which “energy” and “war” became increasingly interdependent. The argument here is that the expansion of both the American presence and its use of violence resulted in the fundamental transformation of the relationship between energy and war, one in which the distinction between them was erased.

The United States had intensified its military presence in the mid-1980s, ostensibly to protect the flow of oil from the Northern Gulf, where the Iran-Iraq war had intensified, to global markets. A year before the downing of Flight 655, Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and the Reagan administration’s most visible spokesperson for its military policy in the Gulf, remarked in prepared testimony to Congress that “ready access to Gulf oil is critical to the economic well-being of the West.” He continued that the Middle East “is strategically important to the United States. We would suffer a major strategic defeat should a power hostile to the United States sharply increase its power and influence in the region... The administration like its predecessors, is committed to maintaining the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and supporting the individual and collective self-defense of the Arab Gulf states.”

Ensuring the flow of oil, or stated otherwise, providing security for oil, was and remains a central tenant of the American case for its role in the Gulf. But the now-common idea of "energy security" is an articulation that obscures more than it reveals. The neat division of energy and security into related but still separate categories misses the more important ways in which the two have become inextricably connected, physically and technologically built into one another.

In creating a new techno-political order around energy and war starting in the mid-1980s, the United States and its allies engaged in a struggle to make and unmake space and movement in the Gulf, to create both a system of surveillance and control that privileged themselves as well as in a struggle to refashion the political geography of the region. The fluidity of the Gulf, the fact that both the seascape and the objects moving on it were always in motion, gave rise to a corresponding fluidity in the techno-political and geopolitical order in the region. The system was leaky and uncertain and mobility both on the sea and in the air was precarious. The result was the system was, according to those who sought to control, always in crisis and, thus, always at war. It has been ever since.

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