July the 3rd marked the 20th anniversary of the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the US-guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all its 290 passengers.
The timing of the shootdown in 1988 and the circumstances surrounding it were significant in that they contradict the US government’s official position describing the incident as wholly unintentional. Both the ship and the airliner were in Iranian territory at the time of shooting; the plane was ascending in its designated route and it was later revealed that the crew of USS Vincennes ignored warnings from the ship’s advanced anti-aircraft systems.
Iranian analysts at the time saw this act of aggression as a clear warning by the US, which claimed to be in the Persian Gulf to protect oil tankers, that it would get directly involved in the Iran-Iraq war, if it deemed necessary.
George Bush, the father, under pressure from various quarters, and nearly two months after the shootdown, famously said “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
In what was seen as adding insult to injury, the ship’s senior crew, Captain Rogers and Commander Lustig, were later presented with the Legion of Merit for their “performance in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988.”
The direct involvement of a US navy ship in attacking innocent Iranian civilians, the awarding of medals to the perpetrators of that attack, and the absence of an apology to this day are all reasons why this single event is viewed as an epitome of all acts of terrorism committed by the US against Iran.
Graphic footage of bodies floating in water, children’s toys slowly going up and down with the waves, and the deafening silence in which the remaining bodies were being collected into boats are all memories few can forget. No other incident in the bitter history of Iran-US relations has remained so vivid in the memory of many Iranians. Its impact is comparable to that of the hostage crisis on the American psyche towards Iran.
I was living in southern Iran at the time. An entire family a few houses away from us perished on that flight.
The families of those killed, every year commemorate their loved ones by visiting the area onboard small boats. This year Iran’s Press TV covered the group’s visit. A young woman was crying and shouting “maman” (mum) to the indifferent sea in front of her.
The group was also incidentally accompanied by renowned Iranian actor, Parviz Parastoui. He was asked what he thought of the fact that the US to this day has refused to apologize for its “mistake.” His response was most human. He said “On September 11th, when I was watching on TV the bodies falling from the towers, I could not hide my tears. The US officials only need to think of the human dimension of this tragedy to understand the pain they have inflicted upon Iranians.”
But as deep as this pain runs, I think it may be easy to heal — and with beneficial side-effects, too.
An apology by US officials now for this injustice may well be an important step in inducing the Iranian government to announce its readiness for rapprochement with the US.
This is also perhaps one of the few pragmatic options with little political cost for the US, and it is almost entirely disconnected from the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, so it can be deployed without much complexity. An act of good will with no strings attached.
However, one has to first assume that the US is interested in opening dialogue with Iran. Furthermore there are forces and players who obscure, reject, and actively spoil any chance of normalization of relations between the two countries.
As is often the case at times of social hardship, siege, and war in any country, there are those in Iran who literally feed on US-instigated sanctions, both financially, by monopolizing certain industries, and ideologically, by justifying tighter restrictions on political dissent and civil society.
In the US, where scaremongering has a pivotal place in political culture, fear is an essential tool of foreign policy planning, the essential capital of the military industrial complex, and the essential medium of the Israel lobby.
There are also a good number of Arab governments that are privately terrified with the prospect of a normal relationship between Iran and the US which they fear will leave Iran a dominant power in the region. And then, ironic as it may seem, both Russia and China, too, find the status quo in their interest as it gives them leverage against both Iran and the US at the same time, politically and financially.
So, the path toward normalization is a pretty rough one to traverse, not necessarily because of the history of relations between Iran and the US, but because there are active state and non-state players working today to obstruct this path, often by giving distorted and exaggerated reports on the other side which are readily bought given the existing prejudices.
Of course, the US and Iran are not always on the same wavelength and one cannot expect an overnight change of heart in the two capitals. But it is fair to say that their common interests at this time should outweigh their conflicts. They may not like the fact, but, since the 1980s and more recently after 9/11 with increased US presence in the Persian Gulf, they find themselves in the same neighborhood. (The notion of neighborhood does not give legitimacy to the US occupation of Iraq or the presence of US forces in the region; it is rather a geopolitical reality which neither side can afford to ignore.) This has changed a lot of things on the ground that is yet to translate into policy.
The rewards of normalization of the relations between Iran and the US are well worth the effort for both sides. Crucially, a process of reconciliation may trigger a chain reaction in Tehran in favor of Washington. By coming together, the two have the potential and capacity to resolve some age-old international conflicts.
An apology by the US to the victims of this tragedy which took place in 1988 is the first step of a paradigm shift towards mutual respect and co-existence and helps the US to dissociate itself from the “bully” label which is very popular these days in Tehran.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. But this whole game between Iran and the US is in desperate need of some creativity.
Mohammad Kamaali is board member of CASMII UK, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran: <www.campaigniran.org>.