By Geraldine Brooks
Jan. 8, 2020
It was a hot day in June, 30 years ago. I was sweating in a chador, a speck in the black-clad throng of mourners pouring through Tehran for the funeral of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As the keening crowd surged dangerously toward the grave site, I was lifted off my feet, lost in a heaving mass of humanity.
Then, I was a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. My job was to understand and explain why what may have been the largest crowd of mourners ever assembled wept hysterically for a man my readers considered monstrous.
Today, three decades of diplomatic failure later, I watch from afar on cable news as a similar crowd in Iran, this time a deadly one, mourns Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. I’m not a journalist anymore, so I’m reduced to groaning at the TV when commentators don’t help us understand what’s going on, but instead confound our understanding by providing incorrect information.
Watching CNN, I howl in frustration when a reporter states that in July 1988 the United States Navy warship Vincennes “accidentally” shot down Iran Air 655, a civilian passenger plane, and that nine months later, General Suleimani arranged the pipe-bombing in San Diego of a vehicle driven by the wife of the Vincennes’s commander, Capt. William C. Rogers III. (She survived the blast.)
The CNN reporter implies that this demonstrates how volatile and dangerous General Suleimani was. But the F.B.I. was unable to establish that the bombing of the Rogers vehicle was an act of Iranian terrorism; the case remains open. And the attack on Iran Air 655 by the Vincennes wasn’t, in any meaningful sense, accidental — and it killed 290 people, 66 of them children.
In 1988 I traveled to Iran for the funerals of those 290 civilians. Their bodies had been fished from the water of the Persian Gulf and brought home for burial. My editor called me as I left for Tehran, asking me to consider the possibility that Iran shot down the plane itself, since she thought it odd that the recovered bodies were unclothed. “Did they put naked corpses in that plane before they shot it down?” she asked.
She could be forgiven for not knowing the relevant physics: Clothing would be torn from the passengers’ bodies as the exploding plane plummeted from the sky into the sea. It was harder to forgive her cultural unawareness: A state as obsessed with modesty as Iran was — to the extent of covering every hair on a woman’s head and every male kneecap — would never consider undressing bodies before blowing them up.
Ignorance surrounded — and still surrounds — that tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the downing of Iran Air 655, the United States military’s prevarications came thick and fast: The plane wasn’t in the civilian air corridor. (It was.) It didn’t have its transponder turned on. (It did.) It was descending toward the Vincennes. (It wasn’t.)
The truth gradually came out in the course of the Navy’s own inquiries and in later investigative reports that revealed a pattern of reckless aggression by the Vincennes captain, beginning a month earlier. David Carlson, the commanding officer of the frigate Sides, which was also deployed then in the gulf, called the downing of the Iranian airliner “the horrifying climax” of that aggressiveness. Just before firing at the plane, Captain Rogers had provoked Iranian gunboats and then followed them into Iran’s territorial waters.
Yet the United States later decorated Captain Rogers “for exceptionally meritorious conduct” as commander of the Vincennes during that time. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655. How would Americans feel if Iran pinned a medal on a man who killed 290 American civilians?
General Suleimani has American blood on his hands, as we are reminded repeatedly, not only by President Trump but also by Democratic presidential candidates. This is true. But is it wrong to remind ourselves of the Iranian blood we have on ours?
On other reporting trips to Iran, I visited Khorramshahr, a city that had been reduced to rubble by a barrage of shelling by Saddam Hussein, as well as the civilian neighbourhoods of Tehran, which had endured a similar barrage. At that time Mr. Hussein was, as the United States ambassador in Baghdad told me, “a guy we can work with.” We and Israel secretly provided him with information on how best to target his missile strikes. There, too, civilian Iranian blood was on our hands.
Having witnessed that destruction, I don’t find it hard to understand why Iran seeks to build up its missile capability. We would, if in its position. Israel’s supporters often note that Israel’s military aggression can be excused because it lives in “a bad neighbourhood” — and indeed, it does. But we characterize Iran as “meddling” in Iraq, forgetting or oblivious to the fact that not long ago Iraq posed an existential threat to Iran, which the United States abetted.
General Suleimani killed Americans and, we are told, had plans to kill more. He was a military commander. Military commanders have plans to kill their enemies. And the United States is Iran’s enemy, reneging on the nuclear agreement and choking its economy, impoverishing and immiserating civilians who have nothing to do with, and no say in, their government’s policy.
Is Iran a brutal, murderous, repressive regime that tramples the rights of women and minorities? No doubt. But so is Saudi Arabia, and we have managed to work with that regime. Iran is just as critical to the long-term stability of the region.
Forty years is a long time for the United States to be without a diplomatic presence in a country, and Iran bears the blame for severing those relations. But the dangerous, disproportionate assassination of General Suleimani may have shut the diplomatic door for many more decades.
Original Headline: Iranian Blood Is on Our Hands, Too
Source: The New York Times