The Downing of Iran Air Flight 655

The US Navy “Accident” That Took 290 Innocent Lives

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| February 1, 2009                          
[Updated July 3, 2019]

“The United States seriously risks being drawn into war in the Persian Gulf...With perhaps 100 warships arrayed in the region and with tensions high and increasing, chances for mishaps are high.”
— U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report (1987)

The Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by USS Vincennes: July 3, 1988

On July 3, 1988, an Iranian passenger plane on a routine flight was blown out of the sky by a U.S. Navy warship in Iranian territorial waters. All 290 people on board Iran Air Flight 655 were killed, 66 of whom were children below the age of 12.

Bodies of the victims of Iran Air Flight 655 President Ronald Reagan expressed regret for the tragedy, which the U.S. military claimed was an “accident”, yet the crew of the USS Vincennes warship was subsequently awarded combat-action ribbons, and its Commander was specially commended by the Navy with a medal for “heroic achievement”.

The Iranian government, who called it a “massacre”, and a blatant “cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder”, memorialized the atrocity on a postage stamp, and held large public rallies denouncing the crime.

Comparison of F-14 and A-300 Airbus planes The U.S. Navy claimed that they mistook the Iranian airbus for an F-14 fighter plane when they fired two missiles at it [See diagram at right for a comparison between the two aircraft]. Asked by reporters outside the White House about Iran’s allegation that the USS Vincennes was too technically advanced to make such a huge mistake, Reagan fumed, “Well, I don’t go much by what the Iranians say, ever”.

U.S. Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) Vice President George H.W. Bush was delegated to represent the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council, where he vigorously accused Iran of culpability by allowing the airliner to fly over a war zone. On August 5th, while campaigning for the Presidency, Bush famously vowed,

“I’ll never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

George Bush reacts to Iran Air incident (AUDIO)   

Newsweek magazine's cover story "Sea of Lies" (July 12, 1992) Reagan’s former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Senator Jim Webb, himself a decorated veteran of the Navy and Marines, has called the incident an example of the United States’ “overly aggressive” relationship with Iran.

For more info, see the thorough joint investigation of the Pentagon’s cover-up of the crime by Newsweek magazine and ABC News Nightline: Sea of Lies: The Inside Story Of How An American Naval Vessel Blundered Into An Attack On Iran Air Flight 655 At The Height Of Tensions During The Iran-Iraq War-And How The Pentagon Tried To Cover Its Tracks After 290 Innocent Civilians Died


When President Donald J. Trump called off scheduled military strikes on June 20th, 2019 in response to Iran’s destruction of an unmanned U.S. drone, he did so after reportedly getting “spooked” by a FOX News interview with a retired Army General and Trump confidant, Jack Keane, earlier the same day.

Warning against escalation, Keane invoked the cautionary tale of the July 3, 1988 shootdown of a passenger plane in Iranian territorial waters, killing 290 innocents. In 1987, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, too, foresaw the risks of its “dangerously nebulous” maneuvers in the Persian Gulf — to no avail.

BBC interview with Rudy Pahoyo, a U.S. Navy cameraman who filmed on board the USS Vincennes on the day of the tragedy, capturing the moment of the “Direct hit!”.
(Witness, June 29, 2018, 4:21 minutes)

The Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by USS Vincennes: July 3, 1988

Islamic Republic Propaganda

“A U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf targeted a civilian jetliner with all of its approximately 300 passengers including 60 children aboard, blew it out and sunk it while all perished.

After controversy and protest sparked and the world became aware of Iran’s blamelessness in this incident, they made a minor apology and said we made a mistake, “we mistook the jetliner” and “we regret it”. Wow! You regret it?

Contrary to what should commonly be observed among the world powers-who do not really care for humanity and basic morals-you shot down a civilian jetliner-which should be respected and no one has the right to attack, with about 300 passengers abroad and then you say you regret it?!You made a mistake?! You did a damn thing to make a mistake!

What does that mean?! If the commander of the warship made a mistake, why did you not bring him to trial?! Why did you give him a medal of honor? Why did you continued your enmity to the Iranian nation with your different words? What mistake?!

How come you never make mistakes in wrongdoing against the independent nations? This is the World arrogance today! This is the US today and they don’t mind committing crimes.” — July 4, 1991 (posted July 2, 2013)
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

“In the name of Iranian nation, I personally call US government and Reagan criminals and killers and send this as message to the free people of the World, US public opinion & next generations.” — April 7, 1988 (posted July 3, 2013)
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

“Hafte Tir (June 28, 81) crime, chemical attack on Sardasht 6 years later and downing Iran civilian flight on July 3, 88 are samples of US and allies’ terrorism. Some believe that June 28 to July 3 should be named as “American human rights week.” — June 27, 2015 (posted July 3, 2015)
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

“America does not hide its enmity. The American president might spread out a Norouz sofreh, but they will also strike a passenger plane of ours, and in the U.S. Congress they ratify everything that is against the Islamic Republic, and the American president signs it and acts on it.” — June 14, 2016 (posted July 2, 2016)
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

“Towards the end of the war, our passenger plane was targeted by missiles fired from an American warship and was downed in the Persian Gulf. There were about 300 people on that plane. They were all killed. Then instead of reprimanding the officer who shot down the plane, the then US President awarded a medal to the officer. Do they really expect our nation to forget this? Could our nation ever forget this?” — March 21, 2009 (posted July 3, 2017)
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei

Islamic Republic of Iran official postage stamp: "DISASTROUS U.S. MISSILE ATTACK AGAINST IRANIAN AIRLINER" The above graphics derive from the social media accounts of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, posted annually on the anniversary of the Iran Air tragedy.

The images are accompanied by quotes from his speeches referencing the incident throughout the years. When the shootdown occurred, Khamenei was the current President of Iran, and he would replace the late Ayatollah Khomeini almost exactly a year later.

“The United States should compensate the families of the victims of Iran Air Flight 655 as a matter of basic fairness and decency. Under international law precedents, such payments made ex gratia, as a matter of grace, would not be an admission of guilt. Making such payments constitutes good law, good politics, good foreign policy, and most importantly, good moral values.” — Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), July 17, 1988

“Some in the Congress have joined with the president in calling for immediate compensation to these families. Their sentiment is well intentioned, but now is not a good time to act strictly on sentiment.” — Sen. Thomas Downey (D-NY), July 17, 1988

“Not one cent of compensation until every hostage held by Iran-controlled terrorists is free.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), July 1988

“The American response to what appears to have been a colossal mistake, some would say a blunder, really should have been much more apologetic than it was.” — Tom Clarke, British Parliament member, July 1988

The United States never admitted responsibility or formally apologized for the heinous attack.

In a February 1996 settlement officiated by the International Court of Justice, the U.S., recognizing the incident as “a terrible human tragedy” and expressing “deep regret over the loss of lives”, agreed to pay $61,800,000 to the victim’s families. It had already been paying the relatives of the several dozen non-Iranian passengers, mostly of European descent, separately.

July 3, 2008

Taken Question on Iran Air Flight 655

U.S. expresses regret and sympathy to the families of the deceased


Office of the Spokesman

July 2, 2008


Iran Air Flight 655

Question: Does the State Department have anything to say on the 20th Anniversary of the accidental downing of an Iran Air flight?

Answer: The accidental shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was a terrible human tragedy, and U.S. officials at the time expressed our deep regret over the tragic loss of life. We would certainly renew our expression of sympathy and condolences to the families of the deceased who perished in the tragedy.


Related links:

The Vietnam War | IRAN | What Lessons Did America Learn?

US Institute of Peace Corrects “Iran Primer” Errors... Sort Of

Abadan: The First Oil Crisis [BBC Timewatch Video]

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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