Iranian passengers

The tragedy of the Malaysia Airlines airplane that was shot down on July 17th seems unique in its kind. But it wasn’t the first time a passenger aircraft became involved in a war. In 1988 an Iranian airbus was shot down by the USS Vincennes, a ship that was in the strait of Hormuz to escort neutral parties and ships carrying supplies to Iraq.
What conflict was this?
At the time, Iran was at war with Iraq. The US, while not officially at war with Iran, helped Iraq. Saddam Hussain’s war against the then new Islamic Republic was as horrible as wars get. The use of trench warfare and chemical weapons made it look more like the first world war than Cold War era conflict. The war started in 1980, shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and lasted 8 years, ending two months after the incident with the civilian airplane.
What happened?
A helicopter belonging to the USS Vincennes was shot at, but not hit, by boats belonging to the Iranian navy. The Vincennes got their helicopter back on board and chased the boats into Iranian waters. While the US ship was doing this, Iranian Airlines flight IR655 flew right above the battle, in its usual flightpath. The crew members aboard the Vincennes thought it might be an Iranian F-14 that would join the battle on the Iranian side. They signaled the airplane at the military frequency, but it didn’t respond. They didn’t think to use the commercial/civilian frequency to hail the pilot. Even though IR655 was climbing, not coming down to join the battle, they decided to shoot at it, perceiving it as a threat. 290 people were killed, most of them Iranians, including 66 children. There are several sources for the events of July 3rd, 1988, but I especially recommend this letter from the commanding officer of a ship that was also in the area.
The US never apologized, but did pay reparations to the family of the victims as part of a settlement in the International Court of Justice.
What lessons may be learned?
Both incidents differ wildly. The difference that stands out most to me is the perception of the attack from both sides. Not for a second has it been supposed by either side that Russian separatists deliberately attacked a civilian airplane. In the IR655 incident however, the Iranians have always supposed a degree of deliberateness on the part of the US. They saw the incident as a sign that the US was ready to openly join the war on the side of Iraq. Iran doesn’t trust the intentions of the US to this day.
The airplane disaster is one of the reasons why it took so long to enter into talks about sanction relief and Iran’s nuclear program (the deadline for a deal was recently extended) And that’s an important warning for the aftermath of 2014’s crash. The Western countries now have to decide what to do. The US and the UK favor a tough stance towards Russia, the country that backs and supplies the ethnic Russian separatists in the Ukraine. And while it’s probably a good thing Western nations take a more active interest in that conflict, a much bigger conflict could spark if leaders listen to calls for military involvement.

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