If you walked into any high-school classroom in the United States and asked the students to describe their country’s relationship with Iran, you’d probably hear words such as “enemy” and “threat,” maybe “distrust” and “nuclear.” But ask what the number 655 has to do with it, and you’d be met with silence.
Try the same thing in an Iranian classroom, asking about the United States, and you’d probably hear some of the same words. Mention 655, though, and it’s a safe bet that at least a few students would immediately know what you were talking about.
The number is for a flight: Iran Air 655. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re far from alone. But you should know the story if you want to better understand why the United States and Iran distrust one another so much and why it will be so difficult to strike a nuclear deal, as they had been attempting to do at a summit in Switzerland this week.
The story of Iran Air 655 begins, like so much of the U.S.-Iran struggle, with the 1979 Islamic revolution. When Iraq invaded Iran the next year, the United States supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against the two countries’ mutual Iranian enemy. The war dragged on for eight years, claiming perhaps a million lives.
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Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil-trade routes. As the U.S. and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. The Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.
The catastrophe brought Iran closer to ending the war, but its effects have lingered much longer than that. “The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran,” former CIA analyst and current Brookings scholar Kenneth Pollack wrote in his 2004 history of U.S.-Iran enmity, “The Persian Puzzle.” “The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful. … Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq’s side.”
That belief, along with Iraq’s increased use of chemical weapons against Iran, led the Iranian government to accept a United Nations cease-fire two months later. But it also helped cement a view in Iran, still common among hard-liners in the government, that the United States is absolutely committed to the destruction of the Islamic Republic and will stop at almost nothing to accomplish this. It is, as Time magazine’s Michael Crowley points out in a current piece about Iran, one of several reasons that Iran has a hard time believing it can trust the United States to stop short of Iran’s complete destruction.
This is not just an issue of historical grievance: It matters in immediate geopolitical terms to the efforts by President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to find their way to a nuclear deal and perhaps a first step toward détente. For any deal to work, both countries will have to trust that the other is sincere about its willingness to follow through on promises. For the United States, that means trusting that Iran is willing to give up any nuclear-weapons ambitions and ramp down the program as promised. (The U.S. has real, legitimate grounds to worry about this; Iran has its own history of misdeeds.) For Iran, it means trusting that the United States will accept the Islamic Republic and coexist peacefully with it.
The eight-year war with Iraq, widely seen in Iran as a war against not just Saddam but his Western backers, and the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 that came near its conclusion, have convinced many in Iran that the United States cannot be trusted. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani’s boss, often appears to share this deep distrust. Khamenei and other hard-liners could scuttle any deal; a similar drama will likely play out in the U.S.
If Iran believes that the United States is so committed to its destruction that it would willingly shoot down a plane full of Iranian civilians, then the government has every incentive to assume we’re lying in negotiations. It also has strong incentives to try to build a nuclear weapon, or at least get close enough to deter the American invasion that it feared was coming in 1988 and perhaps again in 2002, with President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.
Americans might not know about Flight 655. But Iranians surely do — they can hardly forget about it.