[Press & Publications] UNRAVELLING THE MYSTERY: The USS Vincennes - Iran Air Disaster

January 2000

No 12

A University of Leicester Scarman Centre publication throws new light on an incident which has soured relations between the USA and many Middle Eastern countries for more than a decade.

On 3 July 1988, the American warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. Two hundred and ninety passengers died. The Vincennes had mistaken the airliner for an Iranian warplane. Some Middle Eastern countries accused the Americans of deliberately destroying the Iranian Airbus.

Later in the same year an American passenger plane was bombed over Lockerbie in Scotland with equally tragic loss of life.

The Scarman Centre Occasional Paper, Tools of Deconstruction? by Dr Simon Bennett, attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the shoot-down. It uses social psychology theories to understand why the Captain and crew of the Vincennes mistook the airliner for a warplane.

The Paper concludes that the error resulted from the accidental misinterpretation of radar data, which, in turn, resulted from the crew's expectation of conflict with Iranian forces. This expectation reflected America's deteriorating relationship with Iran and an exchange of fire between the Vincennes and Iranian gunboats on the morning of the shoot-down.

The Paper also argues that the crew's perceptions and actions were influenced by tough US Department of Defence Rules of Engagement that required the robust defence of military assets and personnel. The Paper suggests that under such circumstances the destruction of the Iranian Airbus amounted to a 'scenario fulfilment'.

Through its analysis of the circumstances of, and reasons for the incident the Paper shows how precedent, rules and regulations, pressures and expectations can cause competent personnel to misinterpret information. Sadly, in the case of the shoot-down of Iran Air Flight 655, Dr Bennett theorises that this most human of failings led to the deaths of 290 civilians.

Dr Simon Bennett may be contacted at the Scarman Centre on +44 (0)116 252 5700 or at sab22@le.ac.uk.

Copies of the Paper, cost 5.50, can be obtained from Julie Evans, Scarman Centre, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, telephone +44 (0)116 252 5704, email je13@le.ac.uk.

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Last updated: 27 January 2000 16:14
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