There may be no single image which encapsulates the perils of US-Iran enmity as vividly as the tragic scene in the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988.
The poisonous cross-continental rivalry dates back to the illegal U.S. sponsored overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister in 1953, and drags on with today’s nuclear standoff and ever present threat of war.
For decades, U.S. foreign policy toward Iran has subscribed to a collective punishment doctrine, often refusing to distinguish between the government and the people. Case in point: the Iran Air disaster, a disturbing side effect of the Iran-Iraq War.
On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was flying en route to Dubai, a popular travel destination for Iranians, when the Naval ship USS Vincennes fired two guided supersonic missiles at the aircraft, killing all 290 adults and children on board. Citing self defense from a perceived threat, the Pentagon’s version of the events shifted several times in the days and weeks following the tragedy.
Yet one thing is clear: as much as negligence, confusion, stress or inexperience may have had to do with it, the innocent people in that plane were also the victims of politics and malicious stereotyping.
We know this to be so, because ‘blaming the victim’ commenced immediately following the disaster. Vice President George Bush defended the assault, insisting that “reckless” Iran was responsible for the circumstances that led the Navy to fire. “They allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in active battle”, said Bush at the United Nations. “That was irresponsible and a tragic error.”
Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also declared Iran the guilty party: “I believe the actions of Iran were the proximate cause of this accident and would argue that Iran must bear the principal responsibility for the tragedy.”
The Iranian version of events was widely dismissed in the U.S. media. On July 6, a Michigan newspaper opined, “Is it possible that Iran’s rulers ordered Iran Air 655 into harm’s way knowing the U.S. Navy might shoot it down, thus rekindling the dying flame of anti-Americanism in and around Tehran?”
One syndicated columnist even questioned whether images of the dead floating in the water were real, repeatedly using the phrase “alleged victims”. “There are suspicions that a nation known for
suicide missions may not be telling or showing all...”, he wrote of the investigation.
That spin, along with years of demonization, had seeped into the American consciousness quite nicely. In separate polls of Americans conducted by the major media outlets like CNN and USA Today, an average of 75% said that U.S. was justified in shooting down the Iranian passenger plane. After a thorough investigation, however, the Iranian side would be vindicated.
Inconveniently, the story of the Iranian pilot of Flight 655 didn’t exactly conform to any ugly and misinformed ‘terrorist’ stereotypes. Captain Mohsen Rezaian had attended college in America, formerly resided in Texas, received flight training in Orlando, Florida, and spoke fluent English. Pro-American, he opposed the Islamic regime — so much so that he moved his wife and three children to West Germany. One of his children, a five year old daughter, was U.S.-born. His brother Hossein had received education and training in Maine and Salt Lake City, Utah, and his sister-in-law, Nahid Sadeghi, lived in Oklahoma.
On the one month anniversary of the tragedy, Mrs. Sadeghi traveled to DC to appeal to a congressional subcommittee for U.S. compensation to the victims’ families. Her testimony focused on humanizing the victims. “I do not know the other 289 people who were aboard Flight 655,” she said, quoted in The New York Times. “I suspect that few, if any, of them ever chanted ‘Death to America.’ “But it is the people with their fists in the air who represent Iran to most Americans. I wish Americans could know, and think instead, of Captain Rezaian because I think he is far more representative of Iran than the men we see on TV.”
Robert Fisk, the veteran British journalist, would describe this ‘fog of war’ mentality in his epic 2005 book, The Great War for Civilization. “Besides, was not Iran the enemy?”, wrote Fisk. “Was not Iran a “terrorist state”? Was it not, in Reagan’s words, “a barbarous country”? Unknown to them, Captain Rezaian and his passengers were flying across a cultural and emotional chasm that separated America from Iran, a ravine so deep and so dangerous that its updraft blew an Iranian Airbus out of the sky.”
In the aftermath of the Iran Air tragedy, Captain Rezaian’s brother, Hossein, sent this handwritten letter to the man in charge of the Vincennes, Captain William Rogers. Though Rogers did not respond as requested, he included it in full in his 1992 book Storm Center: The USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655. Here, for the first time online, is the text of that letter.
Letter to Captain Will Rogers, Commander of the USS Vincennes
From the Brother of Captain Mohsen Rezaian, Pilot, Iran Air 655
Sunday, July 3, 1988 is a day which I will never forget in my life, neither you can afford to remove from your mind the most disastrous human tragedy taken place over the Persian Gulf waters in a most horrendous and inhuman manner. Among the crew members of the jet-liner I lost my dear brother, a unique pilot, an extraordinarily dignified and innocent man, late Captain Mohsen Rezaian who was the head pilot of the ill-fated Airbus. He was turned into the powder at the mid-air by your barrage missile attack and perished along with so many other innocent lives aboard, without the slightest sin or guilt whatsoever.
I was at the area of carnage the day after and unfortunately I saw the result of your barbarous crime and its magnitude. I used to be a Navy Commander myself and I had my college education in U.S. as my late brother did, but ever since the incredible downing I really felt ashamed of myself.
I hated your Navy and ours. So that I even quit my job and I ruined my whole career. Because of that calamity, me and my family are left with an everlasting sorrow and deep misery and the empty place for a real close brother who was living at the same building with us has created us a great mental distress and emotional upset. We could somehow bear the pain of tragedy if he had died in an accident but this premeditated act is neither forgivable nor forgettable.
I was always been thinking of the U.S. Navy as the guardian of the human rights and protectors of peace and security of the world, but I am sorry to say this ugly and scandalous crime against humanity has put a perpetual stigma on your Navy’s face. The reaction of U.S. authorities toward this unmanly massacre also disproved your adherence to human rights because the U.S. government as the culprit in this horrendous incident, showed neither remorse nor compassion for the loss of innocent lives. And even President Reagan called it an understandable accident and your act as a “proper defensive action”. It’s a pity for a superpower this childish attitude. Didn’t we really deserve a small gesture of sympathy? Did you have to say a pack of lies and contradictory statements about the incident in a bid to justify the case?
You knew well that your flimsy alibies would [be] worth nothing while there exists undeniable evidence. I hope that at least you wouldn’t forget your moral responsibility and please try not to disintegrate the glorious name of America.
I’m wondering why the plane was mistaken for an F-14 which is an interceptor and was not a threat to you anyway, or it was the result of panic and inexperience. I do appreciate your prompt response.
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