IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iranian passenger flight incident a grim echo of U.S. downing of airliner in 1988

The downing of Iran Air flight 655 "continues to be a national trauma for many Iranians," Arshin Adib-Moghaddam told NBC News.
Mourners carry coffins through the streets of Tehran, Iran, during a mass funeral for the victims aboard Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, on July 3, 1988.
Mourners carry coffins through the streets of Tehran, Iran, during a mass funeral for the victims aboard Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, on July 3, 1988.AP file

TEHRAN, Iran — For some Iranians it offered a grim echo of an accidental shootdown by American forces over 30 years ago.

Details of the interaction late Thursday are disputed. Iranian state media reported that two U.S. fighter jets came close to an Iranian airliner, forcing its pilot to swiftly change altitude, a move that left at least two passengers injured.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, however, said in a statement that a single F-15 fighter jet had conducted a "visual inspection" of the airliner at a “safe distance” before flying off.

Image: Passenger
Close-up of a passenger sitting by window with blood on his face in a screenshot from footage purportedly shot by a reporter for Iranian state TV.IRIB via The Associated Press

To some, the incident recalled the July 3, 1988, downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. Navy, which remains one of the moments the Iranian government points to in its decades-long distrust of America.

“It was a near miss,” Habib Abdolhossein, an Iranian doctoral student, told NBC News by telephone. “But there is no guarantee the passengers will be lucky next time and not share the fate of those aboard Flight 655,” he said.

The 1988 attack on the Iran Air flight came amid the so-called Tanker War that saw U.S. forces patrol shipping channels in the Persian Gulf to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers, while Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard often harassed or swarmed incoming ships with smaller vessels.

The tactic is still deployed today in the narrows of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.

Part of a then twice-weekly route flown by the airline for over 20 years, Iran Air flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas, Iran, heading for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The USS Vincennes mistook it for an Iranian F-14 fighter jet, despite having state-of-the-art combat equipment at the time.

The U.S. says the Navy made 11 radio warning calls on different frequencies before the Vincennes fired two missiles at the airplane, bringing it down and killing all 290 aboard, 66 of whom were infants and children.

Iran ultimately would sue the U.S., reaching a $131.8 million settlement, although USS Vincennes Capt. William C. Rogers would later be given the Legion of Merit award, further angering Tehran.

Pointing out that the flight was downed "towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War — when the Reagan administration supported the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who invaded Iran in 1980," Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor of global thought and comparative philosophies at SOAS University of London, told NBC News by email that it "continues to be a national trauma for many Iranians, and it is commemorated as such every year."

In the years since, state television in the Middle Eastern country has aired live footage on the anniversary of mourners wailing from boats at the spot the plane went down, tossing flowers into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the Iranians believe that the United States does not care for the lives of innocent people,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told NBC News via text message, pointing to recent U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The “threatening of a civilian airliner” would only increase the hostility of Iranians toward the U.S., similar to the anger felt in 1988, he said.

"Even in this recent incident they try to blame it on us," he added. "That leads to the depth of this anger."

Iranian politicians have also complained about the incident.

“Governmental terrorism of America is continuing on in the skies, land and sea," Culture Minister Seyyed Abbas Salehi tweeted on Friday.

While the Iranian president has yet to address the latest incident, he did reference Flight 655 after a U.S. drone strike killed prominent Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January.

Criticizing comments from U.S. President Donald Trump — who said if Iran retaliated for the Soleimani killing, U.S. forces had picked out 52 targets to be attacked in Iran, one for each hostage held after the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655.”

Shortly thereafter in January, Iran admitted it unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane hours after launching ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, blaming "human error" for the "great tragedy" that killed all 176 people aboard.

Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran and Isobel van Hagen from London.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.