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The Legacy Of Iran Air Flight 655, Accidentally Shot Down By U.S. Forces


Iran says it has arrested those responsible for the accidental shooting of a Ukrainian passenger jet last week. Everyone on board died, and the tragedy set off mass protests in Iran. The disaster has echoes of another tragedy. In 1988, the U.S. accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board. To tell us more about that moment, we're joined by Afshon Ostovar. He teaches national security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Hi there.

AFSHON OSTOVAR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: The story of Iran Air Flight 655 is not very well-known in the U.S. Have most Iranians heard of it?

OSTOVAR: Oh, of course. It's a big part of national culture, political culture. It was, you know, one of those monumentous events and part of sort of the United States' ongoing repression against the Islamic Republic.

SHAPIRO: So summarize the story for us. I mean, what are Iranians told?

OSTOVAR: Well, the Iranians are told that an airplane flying from Bander Abbas to Dubai on a pre-scheduled flight was shot down by the United States military. And the United States military should have known better. The Navy should have known better. A civilian aircraft doesn't look like a fighter plane. So it's just part of sort of the cruelty of the United States. There's always the subtext that the United States did this on purpose, right? This wasn't an accident.

SHAPIRO: Even though there's no evidence that it was intentional.

OSTOVAR: There's no evidence at all. I mean, it was clearly a mistake and an accident. The problem in war is when accidents happen, civilians are often caught in the middle, and they're the ones that pay the brunt of it.

SHAPIRO: Iranian officials have referred to it a lot in the last couple of weeks. Last week before the Ukrainian plane crash, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif brought up Flight 655 in an interview with my co-host, Mary Louise Kelly.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Who killed 290 Iranian civilians in a similar airliner? The record is clear. The record of the United States in this region is clear.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about the role that this story has played for government officials in Iran.

OSTOVAR: Well, it's always been one of those issues that they bring up with the United States in order to show the injustices committed by the United States against Iran. It's an aggression not just against the Islamic Republic but against the civilians of the Islamic Republic. It's something that is so easy for it to resonate with the common person not just in Iran, but outside of Iran, globally and even in the United States.

SHAPIRO: So how does the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger jet affect Iran's use of this story about the parallel incident from 1988?

OSTOVAR: Well, I think it severely undermines it. I mean, take Mohammad Javad Zarif's comment that you just played earlier. He can't make that same comment anymore - right? - because now Iran is also - the regime itself has been involved in just as an egregious, just as an incompetent, just as inexcusable event that led to, you know, the death of almost 200 mostly Iranian civilians.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so that question - Zarif asks, who killed civilians in a civil airliner? The record is clear. The end of his sentence was the United States, but now he has to say, and also Iran.

OSTOVAR: Yeah, no, exactly. And I think it's going to be very hard to use that argument again. I think they will, but I just think it makes it more difficult. And when they do bring it up, I just think it'll be a more rich irony than they intend it to be.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the story is effective to a generation of young Iranians that were not alive when this happened or too young to remember it?

OSTOVAR: It's impossible to generalize across generations or societies. But I think for most of the people who are protesting these days, you know, they're generationally removed from this moment. This is something that happened in the past. There's an abstraction to it. And because the regime has used it for so long as a cudgel against the United States, it is something that I think has lost resonance with the younger generation, who wasn't involved with it.

SHAPIRO: Afshon Ostovar is with the Naval Postgraduate School's Department of National Security Affairs.

Thanks for speaking with us.

OSTOVAR: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.