The anniversary of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 is part of an Iranian-American war that continues to this day.

A morose anniversary passed this month for Iranians, as it has been more than thirty years since 3 July 1988, when the US warship Vincennes downed an Iranian civilian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655.

Iran suffered a similar tragedy in January 2020, when its military accidentally downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 outside of Tehran, resulting in the death of 176 passengers, primarily Iranian civilians.

Both episodes occurred due to a conflict between Iran and the US that has been ongoing since the eighties, entering its fourth decade. 

War has never been officially declared between the two states, but an analysis of the violent episodes in this wars-in-all-but-name informs how the tragedy of innocents on a civilian airliner were killed not once, but twice in the nation’s history. 

The tanker war of the 80s

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, it began an eight-year war, the longest conventional war of the 20th century. Iraq was also responsible for initiating the “tanker war” in 1984, when its air force attacked oil tankers bound for Iranian ports, leading to Iranian retaliation.

This tanker war continued for years, internationalising the conflict, bringing in the US Navy. This US decision was hastened on May 17, 1987 when an Iraqi plane accidentally struck the American frigate “The Stark,” killing thirty-seven crew members. 

Ironically, the US refocused attention away from Iraq and on Iran, arguing the Islamic Republic was responsible as it had failed to agree to negotiate an end to the war. 

The US agreed to provide naval protection to Kuwaiti oil tankers by having them fly the American flag. Soon violence escalated. American-reflagged ships were targeted, and the US retaliated by striking Iranian offshore platforms and speedboats used by the Revolutionary Guards, and sinking two Iranian frigates, eliminating half of Iran’s navy.

Amid these hostilities on 3 July 1988 an Iranian civilian airbus with 290 passengers left Bandar Abbas for Dubai. The Vincennes, a US naval vessel, misidentified the airbus as a military aircraft and shot it down, killing all 290 on board. 

Whether this incident was intentional or accidental is debated to this day. 

From the Iranian perspective this attack convinced them they were in a de facto war with the US, lashing out in a form of vicarious vengeance in response to the 444-day hostage crisis that began in 1979. 

Ultimately, it was the downing of its airliner that brought Iran to accept a ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq War. While Iran’s conflict with Iraq ended, its war with the US did not. 

The ground war of the 2000s 

If the episode of this “war” in the eighties was fought by naval vessels in the Gulf, the second phase was a proxy war fought on the ground. 

After 2001, Bush had included the Islamic Republic in an “axis of evil,” which included Iraq and North Korea. In March 2003 the US was on Iran’s border after having just successfully invaded Iraq, a member of that “axis.” 

Tehran’s rationale then was that if Bush administration sought regime change in Iran and contemplated bombing its nuclear facilities, the Islamic Republic would take its conflict with the US to Iraq. 

One tool at Iran’s disposal was its support of a variety of Iraqi insurgents to target American forces. One of its Iraqi proxies, Asaib Ahl al Haq, formed in 2006, targeted US military vehicles and soldiers with improvised explosive devices, challenging American control of the motorways. 

This low intensity conflict winded down as American forces left Iraq in 2011 and the Obama administration entered a de-facto alliance with Islamic Republic to combat Daesh, with the US providing air cover, while Iran fought alongside Iraqi Shia militias on the ground. 

The air war over Iraq in the 2020s

Even before Daesh was defeated, in October 2017 Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. 

Tehran retaliated by targeting US forces in Iraq, ushering in an air war, in the sense that rockets were fired at American targets in Iraq, by Kataib Hezbollah, a militia allied with Iran, and the US would retaliate with air strikes. 

A spiral of violence began on 27 December 2019 when the militia attacked the al Taji base, an Iraqi military facility housing US forces, killing an American contractor

Two days later, the US responded with an air raid on several targets related to the Iraqi militia, which resulted in the death of at least 25 of its members. 

On December 31, the US embassy in Baghdad ’s Green Zone was stormed by Iraqi demonstrators affiliated with the militia. 

Trump, reeling from imagery that was reminiscent of the 1979 hostage crisis lashed out on 3 January 2020, ordering a drone strike that killed General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, as well as Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, leader of the militia, in the vicinity of Baghdad’s airport.

While Trump used drones to target Soleimani, Iran retaliated by launching 22 Fateh ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American forces on 8 January. 

It was the same night, assuming the Ukrainian airliner was a hostile aircraft retaliating for the missile strike that Iran’s air defense force fired a missile that brought it down. 

For Iranians, the circumstances that led to the downing of its airliner in 1988 resonate with the present, whether it was direct military action, such as the US president ordering the assassination of Soleimani in the beginning of January 2020, or economic warfare, such as Trump’s re-imposing sanctions on Iran, even during its crisis as the Middle East’s epicentre of Covid-19.

The American deployment to the Gulf in the eighties was based on a flimsy pretext, almost an excuse to seek out a war with Iran. The plan then was to bait Iran into a conflict, and in this process Iran lost its first civilian airliner. 

Lessons were not learned from the first tragedy. The downing of the second airliner on 8 January was the fault of Iran’s military, yet the causal process that led to this accident began because of Trump’s ego and his obsession with negating the policies of his predecessor Barack Obama and his diplomatic triumph, the Iran deal.   

The only hope for deescalating this long war between Iran and the US would be a Biden victory in November 2020 and Washington reentering the nuclear deal.  

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