Monday 4 July 1988
“If anything, the captain could be criticized for holding his fire as long as he did. From what they’re saying, he waited a long time. I’m not so sure I would have waited that long.”
Joseph Metcalf III, Navy’s former deputy chief of naval operations for surface warfare
On this day in history, Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided the first detailed information about the shot down of Airbus 655 by the USS Vincennes.
The Sequence of Events
At 10:10 a.m., local gulf time, the USS Vincennes’s helicopter was fired upon by Iranian gunboats. Subsequently, the Vincennes closed to engage with the Iranian firing units. The Iranian gunboats turned toward Vincennes at high speed.
At 10:42 a.m., the engagement between the Vincennes and the Iranian boats began. [NB. According to Reagan Letter to the House and Senate, two boats were destroyed and a third was damaged.]
At about 10:47 a.m., the Vincennes detected an aircraft over Iran. This aircraft headed toward the Vincennes and commenced closing at high speed. The Vincennes immediately began assessing this new threat.
The suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor. More importantly, the aircraft headed directly for Vincennes on a constant bearing at high speed, approximately 450 knots.
At 10:49 a.m., a warning was sent on both military and civilian distress frequencies. Although this procedure was repeated several times, the aircraft never answered. Most importantly, the airliner did not change its course.
Moreover, there were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14.
At 10:51 a.m., given the threatening flight profile and the decreasing range, the aircraft was declared hostile.
At 10:54 a.m., when the aircraft was about nine miles away, Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles. At least one missile hit the Airliner. The visibility was poor. The aircraft was not visually sighted until the missile impacted.
Asked as how such sophisticated battleship radar could confuse an Airbus for an F-14, Admiral Crowe simply refused to answer.
Q. Admiral, the Aegis cruiser is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated in the fleet in determining threat. How is it that it apparently misidentified this aircraft? … What lead them to believe that it was an F-14 echo?
A. Some other electronic information, which is classified, and I’m not willing to discuss. (NB. It would later be revealed that the US military had developed a system that allows the identification of Iranian jetfighters.)
Official Reaction From Tehran
Iranian officials accused the United States of “a barbaric massacre” and promised to “avenge the blood of their martyrs.”
Following the Vincennes accident, a spokesperson for the Iranian Embassy in London, Mohamed Beshti, predicted an act of revenge.
“We do not disclose our response but it will be an appropriate response to the magnitude of the American Crime,” Beshti said.
At the United Nations, Mohammad Jaafar Mahallati, Iran’s Ambassador delivered a similar message. “You will remember that for many years, Iraqi used chemical warfare against Iranians. And we never retaliated because we abide by our Islamic principles.”
“And this is a principle that we always abide by. We act upon our own Islamic principles, which to some extent covered international regulations. ”
“We will use any legitimate means to exercise our right for self-defense. And therefore, acting in self-defense, we will use all legitimate means and ways in order to punish this act of terrorism. Not merely to punish. Punish for punishment. But we will resort to punishment to prevent further occurrence or recurrence of such unfortunate incidents.”
Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iran, said that “radicals and hard-liners” in Iran, including the Interior Minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, would argue for retaliation against the United States. “They will use the incident today to reinforce their assertions that United States forces are in the gulf to do harm to Iran,” Bakhash said.
“I do not anticipate that the Iranians will actually do anything against the United States as long as pragmatists like the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, retain control of Iran’s foreign policy,” Bakhash added.
Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, an hardliner who opposes Rafsanjani, swore that there should be a “rain of blood” in revenge.
Mohtashemi-Pur had been the Iranian ambassador in Damascus from 1982 to 1985. He is widely believed to have helped to found Hezbollah in Lebanon and had close connections with the terrorist groups of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley.
In an interview conducted on May 16, 2008, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, told me that Tehran had ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103 in revenge. 
According to Bani-Sadr, in the immediate aftermath of the Lockerbie tragedy, Mohtashami-Pur boasted that he had contracted Ahmad Jibril, the leader of a Palestinian organization, to bomb an American airliner.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See OMNI article: Former Iranian President blames Tehran for Lockerbie
Statement by Joint Chiefs’ Chairman, AP – New York Times, July 4, 1988
Navy Missile Downs Iranian Jetliner, George C. Wilson – Washington Post, July 4, 1988
Failures Seen in Safeguards on Erroneous Attacks, STEPHEN ENGELBERG – New York Times, July 4, 1988
Letter of Reagan to House and Senate, Shapour Ghasemi- Iran Chamber Society, 2004