On Wednesday, Iran observed the 20th anniversary of a U.S. attack against a civilian airbus carrying 290 people, with citizens releasing doves into the air and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterating the government's long-held claim that the attack was intentional.
Iran's official state news agency reported that, at a Wednesday cabinet meeting, Ahmadinejad described the July 3, 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 as a criminal act rooted "in ideology." (The event is commemorated one day earlier on the Iranian calendar.)
The plane's downing -- which occurred toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war -- has always been described by the United States as an error. According to the Pentagon, crew members on the Vincennes launched a guided missile after mistaking the airbus for an attacking fighter. But in Iran, where U.S.-focused conspiracy theories have been in vogue ever since the CIA-led coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, that explanation has been viewed with near-unanimous suspicion. Even Sharq -- one of the country's leading "reformist" newspapers -- has in the past referred to the attack as an intentional exponent of Reagan-era U.S. policy on Iran.
Former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose memoir See No Evil was the basis of the George Clooney film Syriana, says the incident remains "one of the most contentious historical issues" between Tehran and Washington, even after the United States provided over $130 million in payments to the victims' families (according to Iran). Baer told the Huffington Post that some current and former intelligence officials still believe Iran played a part in the subsequent Libyan bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland as a retaliation for the attack. "It still drives some people crazy that we never proved Iran played a role [in the Pan Am bombing]," Baer said.
And just as U.S.-Iranian tensions have played a part in this year's presidential race, the Iran airbus attack provided fodder for the 1988 contest between Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush, as well. During that campaign, the vice president advertised his indifference to the Iran airbus incident as a way to boost his pro-America bona fides when he said, "I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don't care what the facts are."