15 March 2010
Last update July 3, 2011
Note, July 3, 2011: I'm simply bumping this post to the top to mark the 23rd anniversary today of this horrific and dubious incident that seems to have sealed the fate of Pan Am 103.
The USS Vincennes and the Downing of IA655:
Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled 28-minute flight from Bandar Abbas airport to Bahrain, on July 3 1988. An Airbus A300B2 flown by Capt. Mohsen Rezaian, IA655 left the ground at 10:17 am local time to cross the Straits of Sidra. It seems the plane was talking normally with ground control on open frequencies, was listed in flight registries, flying well within an established civilian air corridor, and transmitting the right civilian transponder code that clearly means something like the car window sign "Baby on Board." 
As IA655 steadily climbed to cruising altitude (14,000 feet for this short journey), it was suddenly struck with two powerful SM2 missiles fired from an American ship in Iranian waters below. The 290 passengers and crew (including 66 children) were all killed, either in the explosion and breakup, or after a three mile fall to the Persian Gulf below.
Officially, the crew of the USS Vincennes, which had opted to fire the missiles at that plane, had simply gotten confused in the thick of a separate naval battle they'd gotten into. After missing IA655's listing in the 'do not shoot' registry, misreading its transponder code as of military origin, and erring on its speed, heading/location, and altitude profile, the crew had decided the airbus was a fighter jet swooping down towards them for the attack, as all their misreadings jointly suggested. 
The troubling details and explanations of this bizarre accident are worth covering elsewhere, but ascribing the best intentions, the Vincennes fired in what seemed clear-cut self-defense, while they happened to be within Iranian waters. As such they fully earned their later commendations, like the responsible air-warfare coordinator, who won a navy medal for "heroic achievement [...] under fire." 
End of the War
At the Iraq-Iran war's commencement in 1980, the United States had sanctioned the bloodshed, so long as Iraq was on top. By the latter 1980s, the situation had shifted. Increased U.S. assistance and even direct shooting reflected fears that Iraq might lose forever the territory Iran was gaining. By the end of 1987, “we became,” a senior U.S. officer told ABC News, “forward air controllers for the Iraqi air force.” 
Operation Praying Mantis responded to Iranian mining of the Gulf with escalated U.S. attacks on Iranian gunboats, oil platforms, and tankers in April.  Immediately, protection of "neutral shipping" was also expanded; it was to enforce this protection that the Vincennes had been called to the Gulf.
At the same time, Washington and thence the UN Security Council was calling, with Resolution 598, for the war to simply end with past borders restored. Both sides had to see the benefit of an end to the grueling war, but after their own heavy sacrifices had improved their odds, Iran was reluctant to concede on the West's terms and timetable.
Along with a renewed Iraqi air and chemical offensives into Iran's cities in the spring and summer of 1988, the bizarre accident of IA655 had to have hastened Iran’s effective surrender a few weeks later. The precise role it played – minor, major, or peripheral - cannot be known for sure. However, an Iranian scholar stated at a conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center [paraphrased]
"A turning point in Iran's thinking came with the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in July 1988 by the American cruiser USS Vincennes. That incident apparently led Ayatollah Khomeini to conclude that Iran could not risk the possibility of U.S. open combat operations against Iran and he decided it was time to end the conflict." There is every reason to believe that’s just what the Americans wanted to get across, after the tragedy if not shortly before as well. Aside from unapologetic "regret” over the loss of innocent life, and blaming Iran for the warship's mistakes, the American message was best put by White House media handler Marlin Fitzwater in putting the accident in context:
Only an end to the war, an objective we desire, can halt the immense suffering in the region and put an end to innocent loss of life. Our goal is peace in the Gulf and on land. We urge Iran and Iraq to work with the Security Council for an urgent comprehensive settlement of the war pursuant to Resolution 598. Meanwhile, United States forces will continue their mission in the area, keenly aware of the risks involved and ready to face them. That is, as the Iranians likely read it, "we’ll keep on shooting at anything that might possibly be a threat as long as we “have to” hang around there, which is until Iran surrenders." About seven weeks after IA655 was torn down, an agreement was reached and hostilities between Iraq and Iran were officially and physically ended on August 20 1988. No territory was lost, but nearly a million people were.
But even after the cease-fire, one more battle loomed. It would be just as one-sided as the battle of IA-655, just about as deadly, and just as unacknowledged. Again, the perpetrators would go unpunished as innocents paid the price for others' crimes.
Revenge Pronouncements / Connective Tissue
Only in 1996 was a comprehensive legal agreement over the incident settled between Iran and America. Officially Iran accepted the accident story and took a small settlement $132 million and no acceptance of any guilt, exactly as offered by the US eight years earlier.  "Official" acceptance doesn't always mean that much; especially when the blood was fresh and tempers hot, Tehran never bought the bland American statements that the shoot-down was purely accidental. It's not even an unreasonable suspicion on their part - it's their apparent response I can't agree with.
Researcher Ludwig De Braeckeleer has assembled a useful compendium of Iranian death threats following the supposed accident. By this, various officials and ambassadors accused the United States of ''a barbaric massacre'' and an "act of terrorism." They pledged to launch "an appropriate response," to the "American crime," to "avenge the blood of their martyrs," and mete out "punishment to prevent further occurrence or recurrence of such unfortunate incidents." Most pointedly, hardliner Ali Akbar Mohtashemi (alt Mohtashemi-Pur), widely believed to have headed up the "appropriate response" planning, publicly "swore that there should be a "rain of blood" in revenge." 
This wasn't just hardcore posturing for the Iranian street, but something representing a real danger; everyone in the know expected retaliation, and likely in-kind - the Iranians would seek to now kill American civilians on an airplane and see how we liked it. While uncertainty persists with no adequate investigation, the supposed payment was $10 million to the Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC. An early 1991 report, prepared by the National Security Agency for Gulf War intelligence use, stated:
"Mohtashemi is closely connected with the Al Abas and Abu Nidal terrorist groups. He is actually a long-time friend of Abu Nidal. He has recently paid $10 million in cash and gold to these two organizations to carry out terrorist activities and was the one who paid the same amount to bomb Pan Am Flight 103 in retaliation for the US shoot-down of the Iranian Airbus." The revenge moved swiftly, it seems, perhaps starting before the cease-fire even. It was in early October that the GC cell in Neuss, West Germany was set up, October 13 that bomb maker Khreesat arrived and set to work, and October 26 when the cell was busted up in Operation: Autumn Leaves. Most have always suspected their goal had been to destroy an American airliner on Iran's instruction and with support from Syria, using the type of radio-disguised altimeter bomb found in the car with Khreesat.
Three other such bombs were missed in the first raid and only found later, and one bomb at least was never intercepted. Vincent Cannistraro, who headed the CIA's Lockerbie probe, was interviewed for a program Shadow Over Lockerbie:
"[Cannistraro] says authorities focused on the likelihood that Marwan Khreesat's fifth bomb had blown up the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie. "The immediate feeling was: we've missed someone. That someone in that cell had escaped with one of the explosive devices and succeeded in planting it on Pan Am 103." In other words, the terror tree was shaken and the "Autumn Leaves" had fallen and scattered, but they weren't all raked up neat. One may have drifted into the belly of PA103.
Obvious, Then Nothing
When the other shoe fell, the horror and carnage clearly mirrored IA655 with a mid-air explosion leaving 259 to deal with five miles of pure gravity however they did before dying against the cold winter soil of Scotland. To clarify the issue, just hours after the attack, two phone calls were placed from London to the Associated Press and UPI declaring in broken English:
"We, the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, are undertaking this heroic execution in revenge of blowing the Iran Air plane by America a few months ago." A CIA memo of the following day listed this first among a short list of responsibility claims. Among Islamic Jihad, the Ulster Defense League, and Mossad, the report said "we consider the claim from the Guadians of the Islamic Revolution as the most credible; previous attacks claimed by this group suggest it is pro-Iranian." It then listed several, with responsibility usually called in by an anonymous man: two assassination attempts on exiled Shah era leaders in exile, a plane hijacking a plane to secure the release of said assassins, and killing by car bomb a German businessman accused of selling missiles to Iraq while the war was on. [source]
Avenging the killing of 290 innocent Iranians by a US gunship seems in-line with the Guardians' philosophy, or perhaps some other Iranian agency, and most likely with technical help of the altimeter-triggered kind. Investigators, media reports, and the whole public mind went that way at first for at least a year, from no later than this ABC News broadcast of Feb 16 1989. Behind the suspicions of the PFLP-GC cell and its Khreesat bomb "a senior source overseeing the investigation" revealed that "some hard-line members of the Iranian revolutionary guard" may have arranged for the attack through these suspects. "Revenge for the shooting down of the Iranian Airliner by the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf last summer was their motive," said reporter Brian Dunsmore in Lockerbie. 
And still in early 1990 Steve Emerson and Brian Duffy wrote in The Fall of Pan Am 103 how sponsorship ran with Syrian supports up to Tehran, driven by revenge for IA655, "shot down for the Fourth of July holiday, the Mullahs believed, to celebrate America's independence."  To repay these expensive 4th of July fireworks with an early Black Christmas present, followed by a Body Boxing Day and a few more, might be a potent signal.
Officially, Iran denies involvement in the bombing, but some, like suspected mastermind Mohtashemi, have claimed a leading role on candid occasions. In 1995, an Iranian magazine ran an interview where "Mohtashami-Pur said that he would soon reveal the "Lockerbie files" to the readers." The report was quashed from above and the magazine closed down.  Former Iranian president Abdulhassan Bani Sadr also has admitted proudly, in the 1990s, that “Iran ordered the attack and Ahmed Jibril carried it out,”  a claim he repeated to deBraeckeleer in 2008. 
As these statements were made and as of late 1991 the U.S. was officially and exclusively pursuing Libya for the crime, freeing some Persian tongues to confess with impunity, it seems. And yet, the U.S. says, there was no Iranian revenge. The faint possibility of Tehran's involvement in Libya's atrocity has been whispered, but never clarified or pursued in the slightest. [see: Iranian vs. Libyan Role in the Lockerbie Bombing]
Iranian leaders had planned to take down an American plane (at least one), had paid for it and had bombs built and ready to go. With hard cash, glory, and blood vendetta driving them, Mohtashemi and and his contractors must have given up after the Germany bust. This is just what the FBI, CIA, USG, Scottish Police, Camp Zeist judges, and others claim to find most likely. And then just as precisely as item 8849 from Malta replaced the Bedford suitcases in the luggage container's deadliest corner, the Libyans took their own incidentally identical revenge at just that time.
It's never been decided which motive drove the Libyans, but it's widely presumed to be the nearly three-year-old Operation: Eldorado Canyon bombings by U.S. forces. For the death of his adopted toddler daughter and a few dozen other Libyans, he ordered the Lockerbie bombing, while the level-headed Iranians waited for the court settlement and reparations after IA-655.
At least, that's what the FBI's SCOTBOM evidence strongly illustrates. A desperate defector, an amazingly resilient timer fragment, a bizarre unverifiable printout, and a pliable soon-to-be-millionaire witness, all prove the Libyans did it through Malta, however much sense that makes. And nothing solid implicating Iran or Syria or the PFLP-GC was found anywhere in there. Move along, nothing to see here - the real Lockerbie bomber was behind bars for a while.
 Ghasemi, Shapour. “Shooting Down Iran Air 655 [IA655]” Iran Chamber Society: History of Iran. 2004. http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/shootingdown_iranair_flight655.php
,  Charles, Roger. "Sea Of Lies: The Inside Story Of How An American Naval Vessel Blundered Into An Attack On Iran Air Flight 655 At The Height Of Tensions During The Iran-Iraq War-And How The Pentagon Tried To Cover Its Tracks After 290 Innocent Civilians Died." Newsweek. July 13 1992. http://www.newsweek.com/id/126358
 "The USS Vincennes: Public War, Secret War" ABC Nightline, Aired July 1 1992. Full Transcript, with extensive notes. ...
 Operation Praying Mantis. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Praying_Mantis
 Steinberg, Dana. "The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War: A CWIHP Critical Oral History Conference." http://wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.print&news_id=90411&stoplayout=true
 See 
 Wikipedia. Iran Air Flight 655. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655
 DeBraeckeleer, Ludwig. "Tehran: 'The Blood of Our Martyrs Will Be Avenged' [Diary of a Vengeance Foretold] Part 2." Oh My News International. July 4 2008.
, ,  DeBraeckeleer, Ludwig. "Former Iranian President Blames Tehran for Lockerbie." http://www.thetorah.tv/misc/Former%20Iranian%20President%20Blames%20Tehran%20for%20Lockerbie.htm
 Biewen, John and Ian Ferguson. Shadow Over Lockerbie. 2000, American Radio Works. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/lockerbie/story/printable_story.html
 Emerson and Duffy p 56
 ABC News. Feb. 16, 1989: Pan Am 103 Flight Investigation. "A bomb hidden in a cassette player brought down Pan Am 103 in December 1988." Anchor, Ted Koppel. Reporter, Barry Dunsmore, Lockerbie. Video currently viewable at:
 Emerson and Duffy, p 59.
 The Maltese Double Cross. Produced, written, and directed by Allan Francovich, Hemar Enterprises, released November 1994. 2 hours, 36 minutes. Quote at 34:00 mark. Google Video