US downing of Iran flight, clear target: civilians
31 years ago, Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas, that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board, including 66 children, were killed.
The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. In 1996, the governments of the United States and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement "...the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident..." The U.S. later would give USS Vincennes Capt. William C. Rogers the country’s Legion of Merit award, further angering Iran.
The downing of the airliner on July 3, 1988 remains one of the deadliest flight disasters of all time. Although Americans have largely forgotten the tragedy, Iran commemorates its anniversary each year, and the incident still hangs over U.S.-Iran relations. The United States has never stopped its aggression against Iran and recently done so by violating the Islamic Republic’s air space after a US spy drone spotted over Iranian territorial waters near the Persian Gulf and consequently was shot down by homemade defense missile system after ignoring multiple warnings.
One aspect of the Iran Air flight 655 story that has been completely unknown until now is the FBI’s actions immediately after the incident. According to formerly secret documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in the days immediately following the downing of an Iran Air flight 655, the FBI conducted an effort it labeled “Winter Campaign,” which included surveillance of Iranians and Iranian groups in the United States, and extended to Muslims abroad. And in addition to monitoring other Iranian groups, the FBI was interested in gathering the opinions of American-based Iranian opposition groups to the downing of Iran Air flight 655.
The San Diego branch of the Iranian opposition group, Mujahedin-E-Khalq (MEK), which was formerly listed by the U.S. State Department as a terror organization, is quoted in the document as “applauding” the U.S. Navy’s downing of the Iranian airliner. FBI field office communication states: “The San Diego MEK chapter does not blame the U.S. but rather applauds the event as it serves to “bloody the nose of Iran” and cause greater disharmony between the U.S. and Iran. Either case is seen by them to benefit the MEK cause.” The San Diego branch of the MEK also believed conspiracie theories that the downing of the airliner was an Iranian propaganda operation. The group believed that Iranian search-and-rescue units were “fully equipped and in position to arrive on the scene ahead of any other party to control the scene and maximize the propaganda value.” MEK is still very active, and John Bolton, President Trump’s national security advisor, has given paid speeches at MEK gatherings where he pledged to overthrow Iran’s government.
The documents also mention other Iranian dissident groups based in the United States. An FBI asset in the pro-monarchy (pro-Shah) element of the Iranian community in the United States is quoted as saying the monarchist community didn’t blame the United States for downing the airliner. “It would not appear that the Pro-Monarchy (Pro-Palavi) segment of the local Iranian community blames the U.S. for its action or fosters any ill will due to the tragedy.”
Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Quincy Institute, reacted to the opinions expressed by the MEK and monarchist groups in the FBI documents, telling Lobe Log: “The fact that the MEK, and to a lesser extent the Monarchists, at the time were absolving Washington of responsibility and even claimed the tragedy was a publicity stunt by Tehran, only goes to show how marginalized these groups are and how tremendously disconnected they are from mainstream opinion among Iranians. Their lack of empathy for innocent Iranians killed shows why they have had such difficulty getting traction among Iranians, in spite of the immense unpopularity of the current government.”
The FBI documents revealed here are of historic importance. However, they are particularly interesting given the renewed tension between the United States and Iran since President Trump took office in 2017.
The downing of flight 655 came at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war, and by 1988, the United States was directly involved in assisting Saddam Hussein’s war effort against Iran. During this period, oil tankers were regularly being attacked in the waters off Iran’s coast, and there was an increasing risk of a direct U.S.-Iran military confrontation.
There are some concerning similarities between then and now, and the United States has even voiced concerns tensions with Iran could once again pose a threat to civilian air traffic. The United States appears to be playing a less-than-helpful role in preventing a future incident like flight 655. On July 3, 2019, the anniversary of the downing of flight 655, observers noted that a U.S. surveillance aircraft off the coast of Iran had changed its transponder number and was impersonating an Iranian aircraft. It’s possible this was done to confuse Iranian air defenses, putting civilian aircraft in the area at risk.