Anniversary of Iran Air 655 tragedy offers lessons for US-Iran diplomacy today

Article Summary
Iran Air 655’s bitter legacy; Iraq as front line; Iran should talk … but it needs off-ramps.

This week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani marked the 31-year anniversary of the day a US warship in the Persian Gulf mistakenly shot down Iran Air flight 655, killing 290 Iranians. In the same speech he warned that Iran would reduce its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal “in an attempt to save it.”

Whether intentional or not, the reference to flight 655 has parallels and lessons for the present US-Iran crisis, including the centrality of Iraq in US-Iran tensions and the need for diplomatic off-ramps to allow parties face-saving means to step back from confrontation.

Iran Air 655’s bitter legacy

Rouhani said this week that Iran Air 655 “proved that committing crimes is easy for Americans.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the downing of the plane is a reminder that “US aggression against Iran did not begin with @realdonaldtrump.”

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The tragedy occurred on July 3, 1988, in the seventh year of the Iran-Iraq War, which began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980. In 1987, the United States began escorting re-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers in response to Iranian attacks on ships in the Gulf. The United States and Iran were thereafter in an escalation spiral. Iran considered the US intervention as taking Saddam’s side in the bloody and costly war, which led to an estimated 1 million Iranian casualties.

The USS Vincennes, operating in the Persian Gulf, misidentified flight 655 as an Iranian F-14 fighter jet. The incident came as Iran was facing a “cascade of defeats,” as Kenneth Pollack documents in his book “The Persian Puzzle.” The impact of US-led sanctions and disastrous battlefield decisions by Tehran’s revolutionaries led to flagging popular support for the war. Iranian leaders feared the United States was ready to step up its military intervention on Iraq’s behalf, and Iran wouldn’t stand a chance. The revolution itself seemed at stake. On July 20, less than three weeks later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced that he would concede an end to the war.

While Iran’s leaders were already seeking a face-saving way to end the war, Iran Air 655 forced the issue. The end of the war meant a difficult stock-taking for the revolutionary regime. Iran had failed to export the revolution to Iraq, a bedrock of the Islamic Republic’s identity and ethos. Iraq was battered, but Saddam and his regime survived. Additionally, Iran had to accept that the United States, the “Great Satan,” another enemy of the revolution, had forced this concession.

For Iran, the legacy of the war with Iraq thereby became not about victory on the battlefield, but rather the Islamic Republic’s resiliency in the face of what it portrayed in the national narrative as a US-led international campaign to destroy the revolution.

Khomeini could more easily accept a cease-fire in part because there was a diplomatic off-ramp via the United Nations. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 598, a cease-fire resolution, in July 1987, so there was a mechanism for Iran to approach the cease-fire in the context of an international process. UN mediation was not without difficulty, but the point is that the UN umbrella facilitated a diplomatic outcome so that Iran could save face, rather than be seen as simply capitulating to US and Iraqi pressure.

In a rare instance of US-Iran diplomacy, in 1996, the parties reached an “arrangement amiable” at the International Court of Justice about Iran Air 655. The United States “recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident.” The United States agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million, including $61.8 million to the family members of the deceased.

Iraq as front line

The Islamic Republic today is facing its greatest challenge since those waning months of the Iran-Iraq War. And Iraq is again in play as a possible front line, but not as it was under Saddam.

The US toppling of the Iraqi dictator in 2003 put in power leaders and parties on friendly terms with both Iran and the United States. The end of Saddam’s regime was a turnaround, if not a windfall, for Iran, unimaginable back in July 1988.

Today, with its back against the wall, Iran is already testing the United States in Iraq and placing pressure on Iraqi leaders. Iran will of course consider “confrontation” in the Gulf, as Laura Rozen points out. But Iraq is now Iran’s success story and a kind of payback from 1988, and it’s not going to give ground, especially if it sees itself as having to respond to US sanctions.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Iraq in May to consult with Iraqi leaders about potential Iranian proxy attacks on US personnel and assets, as we reported here. US officials concluded that drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in May originated in Iraq, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. US President Donald Trump has said that any attack on Americans would be met with “obliteration.”

These US red lines will be noted in Iran, which will consider other means of exercising its influence. The potential for Iranian reprisals puts Iraq on edge. Iran’s stranglehold on Iraq’s gas and electricity supplies could come into play in Basra, where protests against poor services are already occurring, as Mustafa Saadoun reports, and temperatures area already exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The decree by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi for Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to merge with the Iraqi military has so far enjoyed broad support among Iraqi leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr, who has offered to disband his own militia. But as Ali Mamouri writes, “Although Abdul Mahdi's move is an important step to prevent Iraq from becoming a battleground between Iran and the United States, there is no guarantee that the pro-Iran militias will abide by the decree.”

Iran should talk … but it needs off-ramps

The current escalation in the region has another parallel. Iran again sees itself under siege. The costs of the US policy of “maximum pressure” have forced Iraq to a policy of confrontation. After exporting over 2.5 million barrels per day of oil in May 2018, Iran is now shipping less than 250,000 bpd.

Iran knows it will eventually have to take up Trump’s offer to talk. There are no signs of things getting better otherwise. Iran has so far turned down Trump’s repeated calls for negotiations, including via mediators such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The need for a diplomatic off-ramp is therefore more urgent today. But Iran is so far not doing itself any favors by threatening to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The first potential off-ramp is the European Union, but Iran is losing ground there as we go to press. Tehran has breached JCPOA uranium enrichment limits and threatens to take further actions outside its constraints on July 7. Rouhani has nonetheless appealed to the United States and Europe “to return to the negotiation table,” adding, “The other sides should know that at any hour that they come back to the JCPOA, we will return as well; we are still in the deal and all the actions we do are to save the deal.”

With regard to regional security, the second potential off-ramp is a UN-mediated regional security dialogue, which Russian President Vladimir Putin raised with Trump at their summit at the G-20 meeting in Helsinki on June 28, as we discussed here last week. The Arab Gulf states will likely look for Washington’s cue before getting involved if this is to go anywhere.

A third diplomatic off-ramp is Iraq. Both Washington and Tehran claim to be invested in Iraq’s stability. If so, it’s time to put Iran to the test. Abdul Mahdi’s PMU decree is both brave and potentially risky. He and Iraqi President Barham Salih have to carefully manage their next moves, given Iran’s many levers of influence, and the threat of instability or an Islamic State resurgence in Mosul and surrounding areas. They, like the United States, have an interest in strengthening Iraqi sovereignty. And they know Iran probably better than any of America’s other allies and partners.

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