Britain Helped US Cover Up Downing of Iranian Airliner

In 1988, a U.S. Navy warship shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 civilians on board. Newly declassified files show how Margaret Thatcher’s government offered immediate support to the U.S. and assisted in the cover-up, John McEvoy reports.

The combat information center aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes in 1988. (Tim Masterson, U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons)

By John McEvoy
Declassified UK

The attack occurred during the Iran-Iraq war, which had begun in 1980 with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. The U.S. government backed Saddam and sent warships to the Persian Gulf to support the Iraqi war effort. 

One of those warships was the USS Vincennes which, on 3 July 1988, fired two missiles at Iran Air Flight 655 while it was making a routine trip to Dubai.

Washington claimed the U.S. Navy had acted in self-defence, but this wasn’t true. The plane had not, as the Pentagon claimed, moved “outside the prescribed commercial air route,” nor had it been “descending” towards the Vincennes at “high speed.” 

The U.S. thus shot down a civilian airliner, and haphazardly tried to cover it up. Some 66 children were among the 290 civilians killed. 

‘No Other Government’

On March 2, 2000, U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook met with U.S. General Colin Powell, who had served as U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser between 1987 and 1989. 

Powell “spoke frankly” throughout the discussion, leading Cook to request that the U.S. general’s “confidence… be strictly protected,” according to the newly released files.

In particular, Powell recalled that, after the U.S. shot down Flight 655, Thatcher’s private secretary for foreign affairs, Charles Powell, “had rung immediately from Downing Street to ask what the Americans wanted the British Government to say.”

The British government thus offered immediate support to the U.S., despite it having killed hundreds of civilians, most of whom were Iranian citizens.

To this end, Powell remarked how “America could count on no other government to behave like that.”

Powell would go on to become President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, in which role he deceptively pushed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Staunchest Defender

President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Oval Office, 1988. (White House, Wikimedia Commons)

In the weeks following the attack, Thatcher stood out as Reagan’s staunchest defender. “You cannot put navies into the gulf to defend shipping from [Iranian] attack without giving them the right to defend themselves,” she declared

In private correspondence with Reagan, Thatcher even speculated on the positive implications of the attack, writing that: “The accident seems at least to have helped bring home to the Iranian leadership the urgent need for an end to the Gulf conflict.”

As journalist Solomon Hughes wrote in The Morning Star, the British Foreign Office also developed a “line to take” which was consistent with Thatcher’s public support of the U.S. 

For instance, the Foreign Office emphasised that “the USS Vincennes issued warnings to an approaching unidentified aircraft but received no response,” and stressed that the U.S. was responding to “an Iranian attack.”

The Foreign Office knew it was isolated in its support for the U.S. An internal memo written in July 1988 noted that “only the U.K. included a reference to the [U.S.] right to self defence, thereby attracting criticism from Iran and other countries.”

Eight years later, in 1996, the U.S. government paid Iran $131.8 million in compensation for the attack, and President Bill Clinton expressed “deep regret” over what had happened.

However, the U.S. government has never formally apologised for the attack and the captain of USS Vincennes was awarded the Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service.”

Some believe Iran paid terrorist groups to bring down an American airliner in retaliation. Five months after the crash, Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people.

John McEvoy is an independent journalist who has written for International History Review, The Canary, Tribune Magazine, Jacobin and Brasil Wire.

This article is from Declassified UK.

12 comments for “Britain Helped US Cover Up Downing of Iranian Airliner

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    July 22, 2022 at 11:37

    US/UK = asses of evil. Two peas in the same pod…that is why they get along so well. Same sick mentalities.

    • Ronald Marshall
      July 24, 2022 at 02:45

      And getting “sicker” as the years go by

  2. Vincent ANDERSON
    July 22, 2022 at 10:15

    Great article. Bad memories. It seems there is still an unresolved issue as to intent. While Maggie Thatcher referenced it as ‘The accident [that] seems at least to have helped bring home to the Iranian leadership the urgent need for an end to the Gulf conflict,’ and, per your Hughes account, ‘the British Foreign Office also developed a “line to take” which was consistent with [her] public support of the U.S.,’ ‘the…Office emphasized that “the USS Vincennes issued warnings to an approaching unidentified aircraft but received no response,” and [thus?] stressed that the U.S. was responding to “an Iranian attack.”’

    Thanks, Guys. It was 12 years until Powell phoned Cook; 4 years after Clinton had paid damages, and 3 more before Cook quit under Blair. ‘Who you gonna call? Ghost Busters!’ But you get a choice: 10 Downing or 1600 Pennsylvania St.

    This strikes me as prelude to the UKR war ‘resolution.’ It will be years until Zelynskyy’s billions of US/NATO arms proliferation may see any analytical light of day. While the US taxpayer is still footing interest on the sovereign debt.

  3. renate
    July 22, 2022 at 09:59

    Hans Christian Anderson’s fable ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” has become reality, we really live it on a daily basis, and we the subjects accept what the emperor tells us.
    The LG pipeline is an outstanding example,
    Biden closed it, a major energy supply, we all know it, yet they tell the subjects Putin did it. The Russians can’t be trusted, trust the Americans, the people who break agreements nonstop like Trump, Biden, and the subjects do as told.

  4. Robert Emmett
    July 22, 2022 at 09:53

    Well placed dot-connecting. Thank you very much.

    Eee-gads, that photo of da 2 of ‘em. T-rump but a bellowing water buff t’ dose 2 dozy hyenas.

    Wonder how many grubby-mouthed constables & crooked-handed barristers rubbed & kneaded & knealed-on & massaged that 1st quote by the Thatcher before it popped-out, all baked in a pie? (is a thatcher another sort of blade cutting device, the same as thresher in Brit lingo?)

    Note in the 2nd quote how 1st the lie (“accident”) has to be totally ingrained-in-the-brain among the initiate & spoken openly & often, the better later to open their yaps & spout a confident stream of lies to any who would listen & take lesson to heart, with a knowing fart & nod of “reason” (look around, self-same pools of sovereign bullshit seemingly bubble now from every seam, crack & cranny in the ground, as if regurgitated)

    Haven’t we but also recently seen the absurd lengths to which NATO members would go, purely defensively of course, primarily to protect each others’ asses & faces, the most important features among ass-faced creatures of Earth.

  5. Ian Stevenson
    July 22, 2022 at 09:16

    Robin Cook, cited above, was the Labour party Foreign Secretary in Blair’s first term. He was switched to Leader of the House of Commons and resigned to protest the invasion of Iraq. in 2003. When the war was put to the vote, Labour MPs split 3 ways -254 voted for the war, 84 voted against and 69 abstained.
    The Liberal Democrats voted against. The Conservatives reduced to 165 seats voted for with 2 against and 17 abstaining. Blair would not have got approval with out Conservative help.

  6. WillD
    July 21, 2022 at 23:09

    Self defence against a civilian airliner? Come on, civilian aircraft don’t attack, don’t have weapons, and can’t fly like war planes. Did the US really claim that and expect anyone to believe it? I don’t know which is worse, their arrogance or their stupidity.

    And more importantly, why has it never been held to account for such an atrocity? No, don’t answer that. We all know why.

    • Robert v scheetz
      July 23, 2022 at 05:21

      Right, it’s hard to believe the “accident” line. Thatcher gives the game away with her “positive implications”. It was a US Military specialty, terror bombing, … Thatcher might have added, “… only a bunch of rag-heads and rug merchants.” And as for Clinton, ten years later finds him bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing 300 (?).

  7. Moses
    July 21, 2022 at 19:17

    Past behavior is the best predictor of current and future behavior. Lying has never been a problem for the US and UK. Fools they who believe the “Empire of Lies”.

  8. Carlos Cazalis
    July 21, 2022 at 17:31

    These people are an absolute disgrace to the path humanity seeks peace. They are so separated from any understanding of what love is. They live in the separate self illusions driven only be egocentric narcissistic beliefs. Someday this will come to an end. Consciousness will arise in all living beings. It may still take centuries or the deaths of billions.

  9. Eddie S
    July 21, 2022 at 17:22

    Yup, one lies and the other swears to it, If there was a Hell, there’d be a special corner for warmongering assholes like Reagan and enablers like Thatcher. I, like many US citizens I suspect, used to have an undefined admiration for the present-day Brits… they seemed more civilized than we US denizens — but that dissolved during Thatcher’s and Blair’s tenures…

    As regards the downing of the Iranian airliner, there were also contemporary reports from officers of other US ships in the area at the time that stated that the USS Vincennes was acting ‘aggressively’ and earned the nickname ‘Robocruiser’. The Iranian plane was also broadcasting a standard FOF signal of a commercial airliner when it was shot down.

    And regarding the medals that the crew of the Vincennes received, the late Ed Herman made the comparison of what absolute outrage the US would’ve expressed IF the Russian pilot who accidentally shot-down the KAL 9 flight over Sakhalin had been similarly decorated. But I guess it’s different because we in the US are civilized and those Rooskies are barbaric animals —- I know because the MSM has told me…

    • A.z
      July 23, 2022 at 02:57

      Well u give medal to a mass murderer u pay a price in blood.

Comments are closed.