US & World

Jet Crash in Iran Has Eerie Historical Parallel

The timing of the jet crash near Tehran on Wednesday — coming just hours after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi military bases housing American troops — immediately led to suspicion that the plane had been downed by a missile.

Those suspicions were confirmed on Saturday, when Iranian officials accepted responsibility for the downing of the jet, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Ukraine International Airlines, saying it was an accident caused by human error. The 176 victims included many young Iranians, as well as Canadians, Afghans and Europeans from several countries.

Many observers couldn’t help thinking of a strikingly similar plane crash in Iranian territory amid hostilities, more than 30 years ago, in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war.

On July 3, 1988, as American and Iranian forces battled in the Persian Gulf, the United States Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, Iran Air Flight 655, which was bound for Dubai. Iranian outlets reported that 290 people were aboard the plane, including 66 children. There were no survivors.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran referred to that tragedy on Monday as he responded to a threat from President Trump to attack cultural sites.

Last Saturday, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that his office had made a list of 52 Iranian sites — representing the 52 hostages taken by Iran in 1979 — that would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” in the event of an Iranian attack.

In response, Mr. Rouhani wrote, “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290.”

Iran Air Flight 655, which Mr. Rouhani invoked with the hashtag #IR655, had set out for Dubai from the port city of Bandar Abbas, on the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf. At the same time on that July morning, the Vincennes, an American missile cruiser, was engaged in combat with Iranian boats in the gulf.

The Navy said later that it mistook the passenger plane, an Airbus A300, for a hostile F-14 fighter jet. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., said that the Iranian plane was flying at low altitude and failed to respond to warnings or transmit radar signals identifying it as a civilian plane. The plane was brought down with a surface-to-air missile.

President Ronald Reagan issued a statement from Camp David, saying the United States regretted the loss of life but defending the judgment of the skipper, Capt. Will C. Rogers III. A subsequent Defense Department investigation also supported his actions, though it noted he was given inaccurate information as the plane approached. The investigators also faulted Iran for allowing the plane to fly into an active conflict zone.

In a strange twist, the following March, Captain Rogers’s wife, Sharon Lee Rogers, was driving near a shopping center in San Diego when what was believed to be a pipe bomb exploded in her car. She escaped uninjured. Investigators initially believed it was an act of terrorism related to Captain Rogers’s role in the deaths, but later “all but ruled out” the possibility, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Captain Rogers was later awarded the Legion of Merit for his service in the Persian Gulf; an accompanying citation praised the captain’s “dynamic leadership” and “logical judgment.”

A December 1988 report by an international panel of aviation experts faulted the Navy for failing to put in place procedures to keep civilian aircraft away from combat zones. The United States later paid millions to settle a lawsuit that Iran filed over the matter at the International Court of Justice.

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