Reagan on Iran Air 655

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we published President Ronald Reagan’s speech in reaction to the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by a Soviet warplane. That wasn’t the only inadvertent and tragic attack on a civilian aircraft that President Reagan had to deal with. On July 3, 1988 – during the last summer of Reagan’s presidency – the USS Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf doing battle with small armed Iranian boats when it launched two missiles at a civilian airliner – Iran Air 655 – that it mistook for an incoming F-14. Here is President Reagan’s letter about the incident to Speaker of the House of Representatives Jim Wright and Senator John C. Stennis, President pro tempore of the Senate. 

Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. President:)

On July 3, 1988, the USS VINCENNES and USS ELMER MONTGOMERY were operating in international waters of the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz. (On July 2, the MONTGOMERY had responded to a distress signal from a Danish tanker that was under attack by Iranian small boats and had fired a warning shot, which caused the breaking off of the attack.) Having indications that approximately a dozen Iranian small boats were congregating to attack merchant shipping, the VINCENNES sent a Mark III LAMPS Helicopter on investigative patrol in international airspace to assess the situation. At about 1010 local Gulf time (2:10 a.m. EDT), when the helicopter had approached to within only four nautical miles, it was fired on by Iranian small boats (the VINCENNES was ten nautical miles from the scene at this time). The LAMPS helicopter was not damaged and returned immediately to the VINCENNES.

As the VINCENNES and MONTGOMERY were approaching the group of Iranian small boats at approximately 1042 local time, at least four of the small boats turned toward and began closing in on the American warships. At this time, both American ships opened fire on the small craft, sinking two and damaging a third. Regrettably, in the course of the U.S. response to the Iranian attack, an Iranian civilian airliner was shot down by the VINCENNES, which was firing in self defense at what it believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft. We deeply regret the tragic loss of life that occurred. The Defense Department will conduct a full investigation.

The actions of U.S. forces in response to being attacked by Iranian small boats were taken in accordance with our inherent right of self-defense, as recognized in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, and pursuant to my constitutional authority with respect to the conduct of foreign relations and as Commander in Chief. There has been no further hostile action by Iranian forces, and, although U.S. forces will remain prepared to take additional defensive action to protect our units and military personnel, we regard this incident as closed. U.S. forces suffered no casualties or damage.

Since March 1987, I and members of my Administration have provided to Congress letters, reports, briefings, and testimony in connection with developments in the Persian Gulf and the activities of U.S. Armed Forces in the region. In accordance with my desire that Congress continue to be fully informed in this matter, I am providing this report consistent with the War Powers Resolution. I look forward to cooperating with Congress .in pursuit of our mutual, overriding aim of peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region.

Sincerely,

RONALD REAGAN

Source: The American Presidency Project

Image Credit: White House Photographic Office