President Putin is – rightly – under pressure to explain Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysian airlines flight MH17. Did Putin give missiles, or even soldiers, to the pro-Russian paramilitaries rebels that destroyed the aeroplane, killing all 298 passengers? The families deserve an answer.
The US and UK governments are among those pressing Putin hardest. David Cameron is trying to convince other EU leaders to impose sanctions. Russia's complicity in the disaster – not to mention its possible cover up by trying to steal the aircraft's black boxes – is beyond the pale. Decent countries just don't do this, the logic goes. It's something that puts the country on the level of a rogue state and makes its President some kind of Gadaffi figure.
But how did the UK and US react when the American’s shot down an Iranian airliner, in a remarkably similar incident in 1988? According to some secret documents that I obtained by Freedom of Information request, they tried to cover it up.
In 1988 Iraq and Iran had been at war for eight years, in a war that Saddam Hussein started by invading his neighbours. It was a bloody conflict on both sides, with up to 200,000 dead, but in 1988 the Iranians were in the stronger position. The US, who saw Iran’s Islamic revolutionary regime as their main enemy, sided with Saddam Hussein. US Warships in the Gulf attacked Iranian military boats and oil platforms.
And then on the 3rd of July 1988, in an incident which echoed horribly in the MH17 disaster, the captain of American warship the USS Vincennes launched two guided missiles to destroy Iran Air Flight 655, an Iranian civilian Airbus carrying 290 passengers and crew to Dubai.
Still at least they didn't lie about it, right? As Boris Johnson wrote in his Telegraph column, "when America erred, there was no significant attempt to deny the truth, or to cover up the enormity of what had happened."
But that's not true. The US claimed that the Americans had been under unprovoked attack by Iranian patrol boats and mistook the airliner for an Iranian warplane. Many aspects of the US story were eventually shown to be false, key being that the Airbus was on a scheduled flight and had not, as the American’s claimed, changed course towards their ship.
According to secret documents that I got my hands on, American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wrote to each other saying Iran itself was to blame for the US shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner. Ron and Maggie said the US were acting “in self defence” when they killed the 290 passengers and crew. The papers show that the British publicly backed American claims that the Iranians were to blame. But in private both British and American officials knew the official US story was bullshit, and the papers show the British helped the Americans cover their arses.
Among the first documents in the thick file of Foreign Office papers is a 7th of July letter from Reagan to Thatcher.
It reads, “Dear Margaret, I want to thank you for your prompt support of US defensive actions in the Iran airline incident”, and is signed, “Regards, Ron”. Reagan recognised Thatcher’s government were quick to back American claims that they had shot down the airliner in self defence.
This is followed up by a longer letter to “Dear Margaret” from Reagan, marked “Secret”. The letter says Reagan, “would like to share with you some thoughts about the recent Iranair 655 tragedy in the Persian Gulf”. Reagan’s main thought is that this was a “tragedy” but one for which “Iran bears responsibility”. Reagan’s main worry is that the Iranian’s want the UN to condemn America’s killing of the civilians. He argues that the Airbus shoot down “Should not be used” to “undermine our mutual interests in the Gulf and the Western naval presence there”.
Thatcher made a “Confidential” reply on the 26th July addressed “Dear Ron” and signed “Yours ever, Margaret”. The letter firmly supports the Americans and blames the Iranians. Thatcher writes, “The incident was a tragedy for all concerned. It illustrated the terrible cost of the conflict in the Gulf and the dilemmas that can confront naval forces deployed there in order to uphold freedom of navigation”. Not only does she say the shoot down was done in the name of “freedom”, she also argues that the killing had some good results. Thatcher told Reagan, “The accident seems at least to have helped bring home to the Iranian leadership the urgent need for an end to the Gulf conflict”.
However, while Thatcher offered Reagan maximum support for the “self defence” line on the destruction of the aeroplane, behind the scenes officials were worried about the story. In the most surprising note, British diplomats say that officials from the US State Department (the American equivalent of the Foreign Office) actually wanted the British to complain about the US Navy, because this might have stopped them being so reckless in future.
A “Confidential” letter from the British Embassy in Washington to the Foreign Office, 19th of July says, "Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Near East Bureau at State tells us privately that there is general agreement at political level in State and the Pentagon (including the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff]) that the US Navy needs to do much more to coordinate its activities effectively with civilian air traffic control in the Gulf”. The US official from the State Department “added that it would be very useful if we could make our concerns clear direct to the US Navy, in order to encourage them in the right direction”.
This letter went to Foreign Office Ministers David Mellor, Lynda Chalker, Tim Eggar and Lord Glenarthur as well at the Department of Transport and the MOD, so both US and UK complaints about the American Navy were widely known.
Before that, a “Confidential” telex from the Foreign Office to the British Embassy in Washington from the 13th of July said that the “line to take” in public was that the shoot down took place, “following an Iranian attack” and that, “The USS Vincennes issued warnings to an approaching unidentified aircraft but received no response” and that, “we fully accept the right of forces in the Gulf to defend themselves”.
Privately they were much more critical. Under the heading “Confidential” the same memo says, “There remains a good deal of confusion and uncertainty. A number of details in the original US version of events have subsequently been corrected. For example, it has now been established, contrary to initial US claims, that the airbus was flying within its civil airline corridor and that it was a scheduled flight.” The paper added, “there are questions” about other US claims including, “why the USS Vincennes electronic interrogation equipment indicated that the aircraft was a military aircraft, and whether the warship tried to contact the aircraft on the proper radio frequencies”.
The memo also admits UK stood out for taking the US side. “Most other Countries offered sympathy” but, “only the UK included a reference to the right to self defence, thereby attracting criticism from Iran and other countries”.
The close relationship between the UK and the US – and their urge to play down the full facts about the shoot down – is laid bare in a telex sent on the 3rd of July, the day the Iranian civilian aeroplane was shot down. This “info flash” telex headlined “incident in the Gulf” says, “the Pentagon have admitted to us that the US have mistakenly shot down in the Straits of Hormuz a civilian airliner. This has not yet been confirmed publicly”. As well as giving the UK the story before it becomes public, the US also share their attempts to manage the story in the press. The telex says, “The administration have not yet confirmed publicly and to the press that the aircraft was a civilian airliner, nor that it was the US that had shot it down, but earlier Pentagon statements that the US had shot down an Iranian F-14 are now being back-pedaled”.
America never made a formal apology to Iran, though it did compensate the families of the victims to the tune of $131.8 million (£77.23 million) in 1996, to settle a court case brought by the Iranian Government. The captain of the USS Vincennes later gained a Legion of Merit medal.
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