Operated by Iran Air from Bandar Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, UAE, the aircraft flying as IR655 was destroyed by the U.S. Navy's guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes between Bandar Abbas and Dubai, killing all 290 passengers and crew aboard, including 66 children , ranking it seventh among the deadliest airliner fatalities. Vincennes was traversing the Straits of Hormuz, inside Iranian territorial waters, at the time of the attack and IR655 was within Iranian airspace.
According to the US government, the crew mistakenly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter. The Iranian government maintained that the Vincennes knowingly shot down a civilian aircraft. The event generated a great deal of controversy and criticism of the US. Some analysts have blamed US military commanders and the captain of the Vincennes for reckless and aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment.
In 1996, the United States and Iran reached "an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims" relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice. As part of the settlement, the United States agreed to pay $61.8 million in compensation for the Iranians killed. The United States did not admit responsibility or apologize to the Iranian government.
In July 1987 eleven Kuwaiti-owned oil tankers were reflagged under the U.S. flag, and the Navy instituted Operation Earnest Will on the orders of President Reagan to protect these and other U.S. registered shipping. They also undertook, again under Presidential directive, Operation Prime Chance. Following months of low intensity conflict, in April 1988 the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine, leading to a retaliation by the US called Operation Praying Mantis. The US Navy was operating under what Admiral Crowe called "the air of terrorism and peril that pervaded the Gulf at that time.
On April 29, 1988 the U.S. expanded the scope of the U.S. Navy's protection to all friendly neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf outside of declared exclusion zones, which set the military scene of the shootdown incident.
At about the same time Vincennes was rushed to the area on a short-notice deployment, as a result of high-level decisions, to compensate for the lack of AWACS coverage which hampered U.S. monitoring of the southern Persian Gulf. Vincennes departed San Diego on April 25 and arrived in Bahrain on May 29, under the command of Captain William C. Rogers III and fitted with the then-new Aegis combat system.
The incident overshadowed U.S.-Iran relations for many years. Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 six months later, the British and American governments initially blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group backed by Syria, with assumptions of assistance from Iran in retaliation for Iran Air Flight 655. The cause of the crash was later determined to be a bomb associated with the Libyan intelligence service.
The plane, an Airbus A300B2, registered as EP-IBU and flown by Mohsen Rezaian, a veteran captain with 7,000 hours of flight time, left Bandar Abbas at 10:17 am Iran time (UTC +03:30), 27 minutes after its scheduled departure time. It should have been a 28-minute flight. After takeoff, it was directed by the Bandar Abbas tower to turn on its transponder and proceed over the Persian Gulf. The flight was assigned routinely to commercial air corridor Amber 59, a twenty-mile (32 km)-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. The short distance made for a simple flight pattern: climb to 14,000 feet (about 4,300 m), cruise for a short time, and descend into Dubai.
On the morning of July 3, the Vincennes was passing through the Strait of Hormuz returning from an escort duty. A helicopter from the USS Vincennes received warning fire after it buzzed Iranian patrol vessels. The Vincennes moved to engage to Iranian vessels, in the course of which they all violated Omani waters, which they all left when challenged and ordered to leave by a Royal Navy of Oman warship. The Vincennes then crossed into Iranian territorial waters and opened fire on Iranian gunboats. The USS Sides (FFG-14) and USS Elmer Montgomery (FF-1082) were nearby.
It was shortly after this gunfire exchange that Iran Air Flight 655 approached to begin its transit of the Straits. The USS Vincennes fired missiles at the airliner, destroying it and causing it to fall into the waters of the Gulf.
The event triggered an intense controversy, with Iran condemning the shootdown as a "barbaric act." In mid-July 1988, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the United States saying the downing "could not have been a mistake" and was a "criminal act," an "atrocity" and a "massacre." George H.W. Bush, at the time Vice President of the United States in the Reagan Administration, defended his country at the United Nations by arguing that the shootdown had been a wartime incident and that the crew of the Vincennes had acted appropriately to the situation at the time. The Soviet Union asked the US to withdraw from the area and supported efforts made by the Security Council to end the Iran-Iraq war. The remainder of the 13 delegates that spoke echoed the US position saying one of the problems was that a 1987 resolution to end the Iran-Iraq war had been ignored. Following the debate, Security Council Resolution 616 was passed expressing "deep distress" over the downing, "profound regret" for the loss of life, and stressed the need to end the Iran-Iraq war as resolved in 1987.
According to the US government, the Vincennes mistakenly identified the Iranian airliner as an attacking military fighter. The officers identified the flight profile being flown by the Airbus A300B2 as being similar to that of an F-14A Tomcat during an attack run. The commercial flight had originated at Bandar Abbas, which served dual roles as a base for Iranian F-14 operations and as a hub for commercial, civilian flights. According to the same reports, the Vincennes tried unsuccessfully to contact the approaching aircraft, four times on the military emergency frequency and three times on the civilian emergency frequency, but never on air traffic control frequencies. The USS Vincennes could have used the squawk code to advise Iran Air 655 that they were indeed speaking to them and not another aircraft; however using the squawk code is not normal practice. If the squawk code was used the captain of Iran Air 655 would have known the USS Vincennes was speaking to him, and the whole incident could have been avoided. Also noted is that the USS Vincennes said that Iran Air was descending, which it never did.
At 10:24 am, with the civilian jet away, the Vincennes fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles which both hit Flight 655. After the engagement, the Vincennes' crew realized that the plane had been a civilian airliner.
This version was finalized in a report by Admiral William Fogarty, entitled Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988. Only parts of this report have been released (part I in 1988 and part II in 1993), which has drawn criticism from many observers. The Fogarty report stated, "The data from USS Vincennes tapes, information from USS Sides and reliable intelligence information, corroborate the fact that [Iran Air Flight 655] was on a normal commercial air flight plan profile, in the assigned airway, squawking Mode III 6760, on a continuous ascent in altitude from take-off at Bandar Abbas to shoot-down."
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the US government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of the Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human life and in 1996 paid reparations to settle a suit brought in the International Court of Justice regarding the incident. It never admitted wrongdoing, or apologized for the incident. In August 1988 Newsweek quoted the vice president as saying; "I'll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever, I don't care what the facts are." in regard to the shoot down or any other mistakes. Bush used the phrase frequently during the 1988 campaign and promised to "never apologize for the United States" months prior to the July 1988 shootdown and as early as January 1988.
According to the Iranian government, the shooting down of IR 655 by the Vincennes was an intentionally performed and unlawful act. Even if there was a mistaken identification, which Iran has not accepted, it argues that this constituted gross negligence and recklessness amounting to an international crime, not an accident.(§4.52-4.54.)
In particular, Iran expressed skepticism about claims of mis-identification, noting that the Vincennes had advanced AEGIS radar that correctly tracked the flight and its Mode III beacon; two other U.S. warships in the area, Sides and Montgomery, identified the aircraft as civilian; and the flight was well within a recognized international air corridor. It also noted that the crew of the Vincennes was trained to handle simultaneous attacks by hundreds of enemy aircraft. (ibid. §4.50) Iran found it more plausible that the Vincennes "hankered for an opportunity to show its stuff". (§4.52)
According to Iran, the U.S. had previously issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning aircraft that they were at risk of "defensive measures" if they had not been cleared from a regional airport and if they came within 5 nautical miles of a warship at an altitude of less than 2000 feet." IR 655 had been cleared from a regional airport and was well outside those limits when it was attacked. (§4.62)
Even if the aircraft had been an Iranian F-14, Iran argued, the U.S. would have had no right to shoot it down. The aircraft was flying within Iranian airspace and did not, in fact, follow a path that could be considered an attack profile, nor did it illuminate the Vincennes with radar. (§4.60-4.61) Furthermore, regardless of any mistakes made by the crew, the U.S. was fully responsible for the actions of its warship under international law. (§4.56) Iran pointed out that in the past "the United States has steadfastly condemned the shooting down of aircraft, whether civil or military, by the armed forces of another State" and cited El Al Flight 402, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 and Korean Air Lines Flight 007, among other incidents. (§4.66-4.70) Iran also noted that when Iraq attacked the USS Stark, United States found Iraq fully responsible on the grounds that the Iraqi pilot "knew or should have known" that he was attacking a U.S. warship. (§4.49)
On August 11, a month after the shoot down, the Iranian government released a stamp illustrating the event, where the ship shooting the missile is painted with the colors of the American flag, and the map of Iran is burning on the background.
On November 6, 2003 the International Court of Justice ruled that "the actions of the United States of America against Iranian oil platforms on 19 October 1987 and 18 April 1988 cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America. However, the case relating to the Airbus downing, "the Aerial Incident of 3 July 1988, (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America)", was dropped 22 February, 1996 following settlement and reparations by the United States.
Three years after the incident, Admiral William J. Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that the Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles. This contradicted earlier Navy statements.
Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of the USS Sides, the warship stationed near to the Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers' aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago." His comment referred to incidents on June 2, when Rogers had sailed the Vincennes too close to an Iranian frigate undertaking a lawful search of a bulk carrier, launched a helicopter within 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) of an Iranian small craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on a number of small Iranian military boats. Of those incidents, Carlson commented, "Why do you want an Aegis cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't a smart thing to do." He also said of Iranian forces he'd encountered in the area a month prior to the incident were "...pointedly non-threatening" and professional. At the time of Rogers' announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have been thunderstruck: "I said to folks around me, 'Why, what the hell is he doing?' I went through the drill again. F-14. He’s climbing. By now this damn thing is at 7,000 feet." However, Carlson thought the Vincennes might have more information, and was unaware that Rogers had been wrongly informed that the plane was diving.
Craig, Morales & Oliver, in a slide presentation published in M.I.T.'s Spring 2004 Aeronautics & Astronautics, as the "USS Vincennes Incident," commented that Captain Rogers had "an undeniable and unequivocal tendency towards what I call 'picking a fight.'" On his own initiative, Rogers moved the Vincennes northeast to join the USS Montgomery. An angry Captain McKenna ordered Rogers back to Abu Musa, but the Vincennes helicopter pilot, Lt Mark Collier, followed the Iranian speedboats as they retreated north, eventually taking some fire:
"…the Vincennes jumps back into the fray. Heading towards the majority of the speedboats, he is unable to get a clear target. Also, the speedboats are now just slowly milling about in their own territorial waters. Despite clear information to the contrary, Rogers informs command that the gunboats are gathering speed and showing hostile intent and gains approval to fire upon them at 0939. Finally, in another fateful decision, he crosses the limit off the coast and enters illegally into Iranian waters."
The official ICAO report stated that ten attempts were made to contact Iran Air flight 655: seven on military frequencies and three on commercial frequencies, addressed to an "unidentified Iranian aircraft" and giving its speed as . Indeed both Sides and Vincennes tried contacting flight 655 on several civilian and military frequencies.
However IR655 was arguably not "unidentified" as its commercial Mode III Transponder was active and squawking its assigned 6760 identifier code. It was traveling at an airspeed of . The reference to "350 knots" was its speed over ground, as observed by radar.
International investigations concluded that the crew of IR655 assumed that the three calls that they received before the missiles struck must have been directed at an Iranian P-3 Orion (see below).
Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes' Aegis system in 1988, killing 290 people. The error was initially attributed to operator error, but later some experts attributed the incident to the poor design of the Aegis user interface.
In February 1996 the United States agreed to pay Iran US$131.8 million in settlement to discontinue a case brought by Iran in 1989 against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice relating to this incident, together with other earlier claims before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal. US$61.8 million of the claim was in compensation for the 248 Iranians killed in the shootdown ($300,000 per wage-earning victim, $150,000 per non-wage-earner). It was not disclosed how the remaining $70 million of the settlement was apportioned. Further compensation was paid for the 38 non-Iranian deaths. The payment of compensation was explicitly characterized by the US as being on an ex gratia basis, and the U.S. denied having any responsibility or liability for what happened.