Paul Pillar

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Iran Air Flight 655

The heavy coverage by U.S. media of the downing last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the rebellious portion of eastern Ukraine has made remarkably little reference to the prior event that most resembles it: the shooting down with a missile by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 persons aboard. The Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf as part of U.S. military operations there during the latter phase of the Iran-Iraq War, which had been affecting shipping to and from Arab countries on the south side of the Gulf. U.S. and Iranian naval forces already had clashed in the months before the downing of the airliner, and tensions were high.

The crew of the Vincennes mistakenly believed the airliner on their radar was an Iranian F-14 about to attack their ship. All indications are that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was a similar case of mistaken identity, not an intentional downing of a civilian aircraft. Indeed, part of the evidence made public to support the case that Ukrainian rebels were responsible involves conversations among the rebels expressing consternation when they discovered that what they had thought was a Ukrainian military plane was not.

One of the first thoughts that this pair of tragic incidents should elicit is: there, but for the grace of whatever force determines fate in such circumstances, go we. A frequent comment about the downing of the Malaysian airliner is that it was terribly irresponsible for Russia to put highly sophisticated weapons in the hands of a poorly controlled rebel force. Probably so, but the Iranian airliner was downed by a well-trained U.S. Navy crew that was part of a well-established chain of command and manning a ship with the most advanced available systems for tracking and identifying aircraft.

The comparison should be a reminder that our responses to the actions of other states should not hinge on accidents of fate, or probably on accidents at all. This certainly is not to excuse in any way what happened in the skies of eastern Ukraine. But we need to assess the behavior of the rebels and their patron on grounds that do not depend on such accidents. Any U.S. policy response needs to be fully defensible if the only planes the rebels had ever shot down were in fact Ukrainian military craft.

President Obama spoke of the Malaysia Airlines crash as a “wake-up call”. It is acceptable to refer to such an event in this way to try to elicit greater cooperation from others—in this case, to get more European cooperation in responding to Russian behavior in Ukraine. We need to distinguish clearly in our own minds, however, between this kind of tactical reference to a single salient, however accidental, event to persuade others to support our policies, and the sort of unemotional analysis, not dependent on accidents, required to formulate sound policies in the first place.

There are many differences, of course, in the circumstances surrounding these two tragic events. The events in the Persian Gulf do not have a clear counterpart to the Putin government's trouble-making in Ukraine. But before we too quickly use any differences to dismiss any comparison to the two episodes, we should note some of the other characteristics about what happened in 1988. In getting involved in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States was in effect intervening on the Iraqi side—the side of the original aggressor, Saddam Hussein. Tactically, it would be very hard to find grounds to excuse away what the Vincennes did, despite the tensions of the time and place involved. The airliner was flying on a well-established commercial route to Dubai and emitting all the proper signals for identification. It was increasing, not decreasing, in altitude at the time it was assumed to be an F-14 coming in for an attack. Other U.S. Navy ships in the immediate area did not identify it as hostile. The airliner was in Iranian airspace, and the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters, at the time of the shootdown.

Our own responses to the incident in the Persian Gulf ought to provide some perspective for looking at how others have responded to similar incidents. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 was not taken in the United States as a black mark on American military history. The United States never issued a formal apology, although it did pay monetary compensation and expressed regret over the civilian deaths. The career of the captain of the Vincennes did not suffer; he received an award for his time as skipper of the ship, notwithstanding the 290 innocent civilians who were killed on his watch.

We also can use our own strong feelings about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to gain some perspective on how others view U.S.-caused accidents, whether or not they are viewed as accidents. The prevailing Iranian interpretation of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was, and probably still is, that it was intentional. Given the circumstances of the incident, including the advanced capabilities represented by the Vincennes and its crew, Iranians have found the description of the incident as an accident to be not credible. The episode, along with other indications of what Iranians take to be ill intentions of the United States, helps to explain why many Iranians still regard the United States as hostile and untrustworthy, with its statements of intentions not to be believed.