Having lived through imposed war and sanctions, we Iranians know all too well the potential risks built into the bitter relationship between Washington and Tehran. At this particular moment, as both sides vie for control of the volatile waters of the Persian Gulf and the skies above it, all-out conflict feels dangerously close.
Iran’s downing of an American drone last month, which nearly triggered retaliatory military strikes from the United States, has revived the story’s relevance.
One of the earliest memories of my life is tied to that terrible episode. It involved my first experience of flying. I was 4 years old. My mother, my two older sisters and I flew to Bushehr, an Iranian port on the Persian Gulf.
We were going there for two weeks to visit my maternal uncle, who was living there with his family. Looking back, it is hard to believe my parents decided we should go there at a moment when Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq was winding down. But the entire nation had grown accustomed to turmoil. Nowhere in Iran, particularly not the southern cities, was safe from Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein’s attacks.
My memories are blurry, but I can clearly see the face of the handsome captain who came out of the cockpit and greeted all the passengers in person rather than by loudspeaker. After meeting our family, he spent a few minutes with us and took us into the cockpit.
On July 3, 1988, just one month after my first flight, an American warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iran Air Flight 655. It turned out to be the very same plane that we had traveled on.
It was on its normal flight path to Dubai, cruising over the Strait of Hormuz, when it was shot down. Two hundred and ninety passengers and crew members died. Many of the bodies were never recovered. It remains the deadliest aviation incident in the Persian Gulf region to this day.
Among the dead was Capt. Mohsen Rezaian, who was 37 at the time — the same young warm and welcoming pilot, who was so nice to my sisters and me a month earlier.
The incident triggered a degree of political change. Analysts and historians believe it compelled the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to accept an end to the deadly war with Iraq. Both countries had already lost so much. An estimated 1 million people had been killed, and many more maimed and disabled, during the eight-year conflict.
Growing up I never stopped thinking about those innocent people who were killed on that flight. Sixty-six of them were kids, just like me.
Iran’s state media reminded us of them constantly, the innocent victims of the Great Satan, as America is officially known there.
Above all, though, I thought about Capt. Rezaian and his small gesture of kindness.
Years later I traveled to the site, near Bandar Abbas, to cover the annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the tragedy. Of course, the reports other journalists and I ended up writing were focused more on the oil industry than the Iran Air Flight 655 incident. There is little appetite in the global news cycle for commemorating past tragedies that most of the world would prefer to forget.
The attack on innocent Iranians, which the U.S. government says was a mistake, never stopped me and so many in my generation from dreaming about America. In fact, Capt. Rezaian, like most Iranian pilots of his era, had attended flight school in the United States.
Decades of propaganda aimed at the Great Satan could not kill our curiosity about meeting Americans and getting to know its culture beyond the dirty realm of politics. The pull was so strong I always knew I would marry one.
In the end, I made it to America, fulfilling a long-held dream. Now I even have the same family name as Capt. Rezaian, one that is not at all common in Iran.
In this moment, as tensions rise again between the country of my birth and my adopted one, it is more important than ever that we acknowledge these painful events — not as a way to pour salt on old wounds, but to ensure that we avoid inflicting new and needless harm. In 1988, the United States and Iran were involved in a high-stakes conflict called the “Tanker War,” in which both sides were trying to assert control over the waters of the gulf. The Vincennes captain claimed that the ship had mistaken the airliner for an attacking Iranian plane.
Judging by the way the two governments talk about each other, they are content to tolerate an environment of high risk. Both seem to have forgotten just how easily itchy trigger fingers can precipitate bloodshed at times of escalating tension.
For me, no matter how hard I try, the shadow of the mutual hatred of these two governments follows me everywhere I go.