Iran Air Flight 655 – Lest We Forget

The title above comes from an article in the Washington Post published in 2013, referring to the shooting down of civilian Iranian Air Flight 655 back in 1988. The Iranian airliner was on a routine flight from Tehran to Dubai, when it was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles launched from the US warship USS Vincennes. The aircraft was in Iranian airspace, flying over Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf, and was flying away from US warships in the area. All 290 passengers and crew were killed. There were no survivors.

Why is this important to remember?

In the context of the tragic downing of Malaysian airliner M17, where official outrage in the United States and Australia were squarely directed at the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it is appropriate to explore the conduct of the US with regard to the comparable crime of shooting down a civilian airliner.

There was near unanimity in the corporate-controlled media about the culpability of Putin, and the blame was placed on the shoulders of the Ukrainian rebels opposed to the US-backed, ultra-rightists and racist regime in Kiev. The possibility that one of many neo-fascistic, thuggish militias operating under the guidance of the Kiev regime was never seriously considered or investigated. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatened to ‘shirtfront’ Russian President Putin at the G20 Leaders Meeting in Brisbane. The Russian government laughed off the remarks, but it does indicate that the Australian ruling class is willing to play the role of attack-dog for the American imperialist power. The steady and unrelenting barrage of accusations of the Russian side’s culpability has never been seriously questioned.

Be that as it may, the perpetrators of a such a horrific crime should be brought to account.

July 3 1988

Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted most of the 1980s, the United States actively encouraged the Iraqi regime of former President Saddam Hussein with military assistance, intelligence-sharing and loans. The US stationed naval warships in the Persian Gulf, supposedly to protect maritime commercial traffic in that region. The US Navy was monitoring naval and air traffic out of the Persian Gulf, and had engaged in attacks with Iranian warships. The USS Vincennes commander, Captain William C. Rogers III, ordered the shooting down of the Iran Air 655 and two missiles were launched. The aircraft was destroyed and all on board were killed. They included 66 children.

In the subsequent investigation into the attack, the US authorities blamed human error, describing the airliner’s downing as a regrettable tragedy. Then US President Ronald Reagan, basing himself on the reports submitted by US naval officials, stated that the commanding crew of the USS Vincennes believed they were under threat and took appropriate defensive action given the circumstances. Admiral William Crowe, then the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also defended the actions of Captain Rogers, remarking that the USS Vincennes had sufficient reasons to believe they were in danger and took the necessary defensive measures.

All of the assertions of the US government in relation to the shooting down of Iran Air 655 have been shown to be false. The Iranian airliner was transmitting signals indicating its civilian status, something that the US Navy with all of its sophisticated technology could hardly have mistaken. Flight 655 was ascending, flying away from the military carrier rather than descending towards the ship.

The cover-up of the criminal action of bringing down a civilian airliner is just as inexcusable as the crime itself. In 1990, the captain of the USS Vincennes, William Rogers III, was awarded the Legion of Merit for meritorious conduct for his performance as a commanding officer.

The writers and editors of Veterans Today magazine, a journal that deals with the concerns of returned service personnel, had a different assessment of Captain Rogers and his crew. In an article entitled ‘Murder in the Air’, they wrote that:

The officers and sailors of the USS Vincennes may have the honor of being among the absolutely worst and most shameful of any who have ever served in uniform. 

In 1991, Admiral William Crowe grudgingly admitted that the USS Vincennes was inside Iranian waters when the shooting down took place, not in international waters as the US Navy had first claimed.

In 1996, the Iranian and US governments reached an arrangement organised at the International Court of Justice. A compensation payout of 61.8 million dollars was agreed to be provided to the families of the Iran Air 655 victims, and the United States expressed deep regret over the incident. The US government has never actually admitted responsibility for the attack, or ever apologised for it. Indeed, in August 1988, in the immediate aftermath of the airliner’s downing, former US Vice President George Bush (senior) stated that:

I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.

The enormous fury and frustration that accompanies the drumbeat of denunciations regarding the downing of Malaysian Airliner 17 reeks of hypocrisy. The deceptions of the United States ruling class are astounding, given that they have flouted the international laws that they now claim to uphold. The outrage over the demise of MH17 (whether real or manufactured) serves a useful tribal function – to unite us in an aura of  hyperbolic self-affirmative superiority over an enemy that stoops to new barbaric lows – surely we are not as savage as them?

Iranians honour those who perished in the attack

The Iran-Iraq war ended in August 1988. The shoot-down of Iran Air 655 constitutes an unhealed wound for the Iranian side, evidence of the perfidy and cunning deceptions of the power to the West. The Iranians mark July 3 with commemorative events and sombre ceremonies to uphold the event lest we forget:

Courtesy of Mehr News Agency
Courtesy of Mehr News Agency

In 2014, the Harvard Political Review published an article entitled ‘Sorry, but Iran Air 655 is not equivalent to Malaysia Flight 17’, a prolonged obsequious apologia for the shooting down of the Iranian aircraft. The author does make an interesting point – the United States, during the Iran-Iraq war, positioned its naval warships in the Persian Gulf to protect trade routes and uphold free navigation of the seas. This is actually a legitimate difference between MH17 and Iran Air 655. Perhaps that is the only valid point in the entire article.

The US imperialist power regards the Persian Gulf, and indeed the oil resources of the Middle East and Central Asia, as necessary to its own strategic and military interests. It will brook no opposition to its economic expansion, at the expense of the people in that region, the true owners of those natural resources. The attack on Iran Air 655 did constitute a strong signal delivered by the trigger-happy rulers of the American war machine – this region belongs to us, defy us, and we will take steps to blast you into oblivion. Malaysia has no economic or material interests in the Ukraine, or Eastern Europe. It has never attacked any European country, nor placed its soldiers on foreign soil, or constructed military bases in foreign countries.

Perhaps it is time to examine the deceptions, hypocrisies and evil committed by our own political and economic leaders. Successive Australian governments, both Labour and Liberal, have made it a virtue (if it can be called that) of riding on the coattails of US foreign policy objectives. An axis of evil can only exist when a criminal power has willing underlings that comply with its predatory actions.

The G8 summit tensions, cooperation on Burma and the fiction of humanitarian intervention

The G8 summit, the principal meeting of the leaders of all the world’s imperialist nations and partners, was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland over 17-18 June 2013. While the summit’s main concerns were economic matters such as global trade, tax evasion and greater accountability in economic affairs, the discussions between the imperialist states was dominated by the ongoing Syrian civil war and the attendant humanitarian tragedy.

The main highlight of the G8 summit was the clash between US President Barack Obama, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, about their conflicting plans for Syria. Much of the media coverage involved examining the conflicts between these participants, with Russia continuing to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the United States (joined by its imperialist allies in Europe) supporting the fractured Syrian rebels. The Guardian online newspaper provided a detailed examination of Putin’s opposition to any proposed plans by the US and its supporters for a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria, and the US has countered by promising to provide increased military aid to the Syrian rebel forces.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron and his officials met privately with President Putin, and stated that while Moscow had no personal commitment to keeping Assad in power and even conceded that Assad might have to resign, it was on the condition that Syria avoid the sectarian conflict and economic breakdown that followed similar imperialist interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. British officials insisted that there is no place for Assad in a post-war Syria, and French President Francois Hollande opened the door for Iran, another solid supporter of the Syrian regime, to participate in future peace talks. Moscow however subsequently rebuked Britain and France, with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov stressed that any resolution of the Syrian conflict had to involve Assad, and that all talk of his resignation was impermissible. The official communique issue after the G8 meeting made no mention however, of Assad stepping down, and insisted that Russia’s military aid to the Syrian government would continue.

The ongoing conflicts between the G8 powers is patently obvious to all international observers. The Times of India conveyed a more honest appraisal of the G8 summit, elaborating on the ‘face-off’ between Obama and Putin. What is striking though is the way that the corporate media have portrayed the stance of Moscow as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement in Syria. The underlying assumption of the mainstream media is that Obama is ‘frustrated’ that American power cannot be deployed to resolve an obvious humanitarian catastrophe, in this case, the plight of Syrian refugees. The refugees from the Syrian imbroglio deserve our support and help, and we should avoid playing off one group of victims against another. What is worth examining is the unexplained assumption that US and British policy-makers are motivated by humanitarian concerns, while Russians, Iranians, Chinese, and other nations are only out to protect their own material interests.

Justin Doolittle, a political scientist writing in Counterpunch online magazine, makes three essential observations pertinent to bear in mind about US foreign policy. We must first dispense with the fiction that US military and political leaders make decisions to intervene militarily based on humanitarian considerations. The US makes decisions based on its own material self-interests, and it is the poor and downtrodden who are left by the wayside. The Assad regime is a repressive, capitalist dictatorship, and has caused untold suffering for Syrian people. But the notion that the Obama administration wants to ‘do something’ to alleviate the plight of the Syrian population is ludicrous. As Doolittle explains in his Counterpunch article, almost every modern power has used a humanitarian cover to justify its predatory military interventions, disguising its underlying economic and military calculations with the garb of ‘selfless’ concern.

Secondly, Doolittle observes that another unspoken assumption is that US military intervention reduces the level and intensity of violence in a given conflict and leads to a peaceful resolution. This rather ignorant supposition is based on a willful ignorance of the history of US imperial violence in various parts of the world. An imperialist state, with a record of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East, its role in demolishing societies like Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot be part of a peaceful solution to any conflict. This childish ‘Saving Private Ryan’ view of US military history, may make for great entertainment but flies in the face of the facts. Such a foreign intervention only escalates the level of violence, and there is no concern for what happens afterwards. We can see the effects of the purported humanitarian intervention in Libya, with armed groups fighting it out in the streets. Leading figures of the British military establishment are currently complaining to David Cameron that sending arms to the Syrian rebels will only make matters worse, leading to a Libyan-style scenario. As the DailyMail Online correspondent put it;

Up to 3,000 surface-to-air missiles have gone missing in Libya since the conflict –  and spy chiefs say the state has become the ‘Tesco’ of the world’s illegal arms trade.

The British government was a vociferous supporter of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, and one of the results of that military adventure is the decision by the British Foreign Office to withdraw some staff from its embassy in Libya because of ongoing political instability. Foreign embassies have come under attacks in recent months, with the most high profile being the assault on the US embassy compound in Benghazi last year, resulting in the murder of then US ambassador J Christopher Stevens. Ironically, the previous Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, having opened up to foreign capital in the 2000s, had excellent relations with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The third and final premise that remains unexamined when speaking of ‘humanitarian interventions’ is the widespread assumption that the US is the only honest broker and best placed to carry out an imperial intervention. There is no discussion of the international bodies, such as the United Nations, and its role in brokering peace settlements and getting the relevant parties to agree on an acceptable formula. The UN is dismissed as an ineffectual body, paralysed by interminable debates and quarrels, and incapable of decisive action. The United Nations is an imperfect body, reflecting the balance of forces between the imperialist states. But it is also the only international forum where the majority of the world’s countries, and the majority of the world’s people, can have their input into international decision-making. The UN General Assembly is the meeting place where all of the world’s poorest countries, incorporating the majority of the world’s population, takes decisions that are frequently vetoed by the overriding Security Council. The US has consistently violated international laws and conventions agreed to at the United Nations, behaving like a rogue state. Blocking the decisions of the UN General Assembly has produced deadlock, a situation for which the US bears at least partial responsibility. US intervention in the Middle East has resulted in blowback because its impact on that region has been toxic and stirred up sectarian fratricidal conflicts.

A study in contrasts

There was another international forum held over June 5 to 7, 2013 in city of Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, formally known as Myanmar. The World Economic Forum on East Asia (WEF) brought together political leaders, business partners, CEOs of various transnational corporations, academics and civil society advocates from around the world. In contrast to the G8 summit, there was no bickering or squabbling, only cooperation between the representatives of the various nations on how to exploit the energy-and-mineral-rich country of Burma, tap into its vast energy reserves and make a profit-bonanza from an area of the world previously closed off by US-supported economic sanctions.

The business executives from multiple transnational corporations were there to discuss the many lucrative opportunities for foreign investment, including Australian energy giant Woodside Petroleum, eager to invest in Burma’s oil and gas reserves. Coca-Cola was also there for the WEF, as well as the Anglo-Dutch corporation Unilever.

The World Economic Forum in East Asia meeting sent a signal to the world – that Burma and its military-dominated regime are rehabilitated into the international community. Such a meeting of political officials and business executives would have been absolutely impossible to contemplate two years ago. But since the Obama administration came to office, US foreign policy has adopted a ‘pivot to Asia’, to use the phrase US officials coined to signify greater competition with the rising powers of China and India. Burma, located right between India and China, established close relations with Beijing over the last few decades. The Burmese military rulers, having gone through the sham of ‘elections’ and making cosmetic changes to the political process, are now normalising relations with the US, Europe and other imperialist states, pushing back against Chinese influence.

The official change of Burma from pariah, rogue regime to a flourishing capitalist ‘liberal democracy’ has involved the major powers ignoring a frightful and ongoing humanitarian crisis in that country, a crisis for which the Burmese regime bears direct responsibility; the pogroms and ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya population in that country. The Rohingya minority have been subjected to killings, torture, pogroms at the hands of nationalist Buddhist gangs rampaging through Muslim villages, and exile into impoverished refugee camps. Since 2012 Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian writer, journalist and editor of the Palestine Chronicle online magazine, has been documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslim population and the cursory attention given to this problem by the international community. This ongoing exclusion and ethnic cleansing program has not deterred the imperialist states from rushing to establish profitable trading relations with the current Burmese regime.

Baroud has written in the online journal Dissident Voice that;

One fails to understand the unperturbed attitude with which regional and international leaders and organizations are treating the unrelenting onslaught against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Numbers speak of atrocities where every violent act is prelude to greater violence and ethnic cleansing. Yet, western governments’ normalization with the Myanmar regime continues unabated, regional leaders are as gutless as ever and even human rights organizations seem compelled by habitual urges to issue statements lacking meaningful, decisive and coordinated calls for action.

The Rohingya people, currently numbering between 800,000 and one million, do not have any legal rights as citizens in Burma. They live mostly in the province of Arakan, also known as Rakhine, and are officially regarded as ‘Bengali immigrants’ and thus not entitled to full citizenship in Burma. Sectarian violence perpetrated by the Buddhist Arakenese against the Muslim Rohingya erupted in June 2012 and has largely continued unabated. The Burmese authorities have done next to nothing to halt the violence. Indeed, in many cases, they have encouraged it. Forced to live in displacement camps in squalid conditions, the Rohingya have been forced into a live of poverty and desperation. Rohingya families have been driven out of their homes and their lands burned, attacked with machetes, and their mosques have been reduced to ashes. All the while, the alleged reformist President of Burma, Thein Sein, has advocated confining the Rohingya to displacement camps, or deporting them en masse. While the quasi-civilian government is formally in charge, the real power still lies with the all-encompassing military.

These human rights violations, and the humanitarian tragedy spawned by this ethnic cleansing, means nothing to the business and political leaders who are eager to capitalise on the ‘gold rush’ now on in Burma, in the words of Ramzy Baroud. Martin Sorrell, the chief of the advertising and marketing firm WPP plc, captured the mood when he was quoted as saying, “When was the last time a market of 60 million people fell out of the sky?” He continued, “This is one of the last frontiers.” Another commodity that Burma has in abundance, which will be exploited by the multinational corporations to make their bonanza-profits, is cheap labour. As the correspondent for the Irrawady online newspaper explained, Japanese investors have been attracted to Thailand, despite that country’s political upheavals. But now, with a huge labour force in Burma willing to work for one-sixth of a Thai worker’s wage, could lure the Japanese business community into Burma.

The Burmese regime has gone so far as to legislate (in 2005) that Muslim Rohingya families are only allowed two children. Local authorities in Arakan state reinforced this law last year in the wake of anti-Muslim sectarian violence. This discriminatory legislation is part of the longstanding practice of anti-Islamic racism that the Burmese authorities have invoked periodically since the beginning of direct military rule in 1962. Rohingya couples must also apply for and obtain permission to marry from the authorities. As Human Rights Watch observes;

Implementation of this callous and cruel two-child policy against the Rohingya is another example of the systematic and wide ranging persecution of this group, who have recently been the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “President Thein Sein says he is against discrimination. If so, he should quickly declare an end to these coercive family restrictions and other discriminatory policies against the Rohingya.

The much-celebrated democracy ‘icon’ Aung San Suu Kyi only recently spoke up about the systematic discrimination and persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority. She stated that the two-child policy is against human rights, but that it would be difficult to implement in Arakan. She expressed some lukewarm criticism of the onrush of Western investors in Burma – by claiming that they are not investing quickly enough. Suu Kyi does not advocate granting citizenship to the Rohingya people, or spoken out against the multinational companies that seek to invest in Burma while trampling human rights. The National League for Democracy (NLD) which Suu Kyi heads, is markedly pro-business oriented and welcomes further investment in Burma by the Western powers.

The opening up of the country to Western investment has corresponded with an eruption of sectarian Buddhist communalism and the targets of such national chauvinism are the Rohingya minority. Many risk perilous journeys to seek refuge in other countries, including Indonesia and Australia, rather than stay and face further violence, torture and suffering at the hands of a national-chauvinist Buddhist elite. The words of the Palestinian writer Ramzy Baroud, in the article “Ignoring Genocide: Rohingya People Deserve to Live” are the most appropriate with which to conclude, given that the Palestinians, like the Muslim Rohingya, are another stateless population yearning for self-determination. Baroud wrote;

The perpetual suffering of the Rohingya people must end. They are deserving of rights and dignity. They are weary of crossing unforgiving seas and walking harsh terrains seeking mere survival. More voices must join those who are speaking out in support of their rights. ASEAN must break away from its silence and tediously guarded policies and western countries must be confronted by their own civil societies: no normalization with Rangoon when innocent men, women and children are being burned alive in their own homes. This injustice needs to be known to the world and serious, organized and determined efforts must follow to bring the persecution of the Rohingya people to an end.

This is not just a conclusion, but also a platform for a new beginning.