Illustration: Andrew Dyson
On the morning of July 3 1988, a passenger jet was taking off from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It was an Airbus A300 operated by Iran Air, and on board were 290 people including 66 children. They were about to make a routine flight to Dubai, where many of them intended to have a holiday – Iran being a bit miserable at that time, since it was the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. At 10.17am, the plane left the tarmac and began to climb to 14,000 feet for the 28-minute flight. They took an entirely predictable route. They turned on their transponder – in accordance with normal practice – so that it emitted a “squawk code” identifying the aircraft as civilian. The crew was experienced, and at all times maintained communication, in English, with air traffic control.
It was a tragedy for all concerned that on that same morning, a state-of-the-art US warship, the USS Vincennes, was lying more or less beneath them in the Strait of Hormuz. The USS Vincennes had been involved in an engagement in the past few hours, when one of its helicopters had come under small arms fire from Iranian vessels. It was only a year since 37 US sailors had died in an airborne attack by Iraq on the USS Stark. It would be fair to say that the crew on the bridge of the Vincennes were in a state of high battle alertness, if not nervousness.
We look in incredulity and rage at the scenes in eastern Ukraine.
At any rate, they somehow managed to mistake the Iranian Airbus flight 655 for an F-14A Tomcat fighter of the kind used by the Iranian air force. They thought the plane was descending in an attack run, when it was actually climbing. When the plane failed to respond to their calls, they took this to be a sign of hostile intent. With only minutes to spare, they made a decision to neutralise what they thought was a threat to their lives. They fired SM-2MR missiles at an unarmed jet, and blew it out of the sky, killing everyone on board. There were passengers from Iran, India, Pakistan, Yugoslavia and Italy. It was an appalling and unforgivable blunder, for which America and its allies were to pay a heavy price – not least at Lockerbie.
Today, we mourn the 298 passengers and crew of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – 37 of them Australian citizens and residents – who have just been massacred by thugs backed by Vladimir Putin. We look in incredulity and rage at the scenes in eastern Ukraine: the looting of the site; the obvious tampering with the evidence; the callous and shameful treatment of the bodies of the deceased and of their possessions.
The reason I mention the Iranian Airbus is not to suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalence between the two disasters – both of them the accidental shooting down of a passenger jet – but rather the opposite. My purpose is to show the difference between these two events, and the difference that consequently emerges between a great and open democracy and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
I will not pretend that the Americans were perfect in their handling of the Airbus tragedy. They never made a formal apology to Iran, and for some (incredible) reason the captain of the USS Vincennes was later awarded the Legion of Merit. But the first and most important difference was that when America erred, there was no significant attempt to deny the truth, or to cover up the enormity of what had happened. An inquiry was held, and it was accepted that there was absolutely no fault on the side of the Iranian plane. It was concluded that the bridge crew had essentially made a disastrous error in thinking the plane looked hostile, and this was ascribed to “scenario fulfilment”, whereby people trained to respond to a certain scenario (attack by air) carry out every detail of the procedure without thinking hard enough whether reality corresponds to the scenario.
Many in the US Navy went further, and said that the captain, William Rogers, was at fault in the sense that he was notoriously willing to “pick a fight”. Furthermore, the US actually compensated the Iranians for the disaster, in that they eventually settled an international court case by paying $131.8 million, most of the sum going to the families of the deceased. In accepting some measure of responsibility towards the bereaved, and in trying to get at the truth, the US showed a degree of maturity and wisdom. Contrast Putin, with his evasion and obfuscation and lies. Can you imagine him ever accepting the reality of what has happened, let alone doing something to atone, such as sending money to the families of the victims?
Then there is the final and fundamental difference in the circumstances of the downing of the two passenger jets. The Americans made a horrific mistake, as they admitted; but they were not in the Strait of Hormuz as belligerents. On the contrary, the US Navy was trying to keep those seas safe. It was there to try to protect all the civilian and commercial traffic that was vulnerable because of the Iran-Iraq war.
Look at what Putin is doing in Ukraine, and the distinction is obvious. There is only one reason why those drunken Russian-backed separatists had access to a Buk surface-to-air missile. It was a present from Vladimir in the Kremlin. He has set on this conflict. He is fanning the flames of violence in a sovereign European state. This is his war. He bears responsibility, and he must not be allowed to get away with it. If he wants to prevent the reputation of Russia from being deeply and globally tainted, he must act fast: to secure the site for a proper international inquiry, to accept the truth of what has happened, and to cut off the rebels from further supplies.
As for the rest of us, we need to be willing to put pressure on Putin that will make him comply. If we are to make any sense of this feeble “European Common Foreign and Security Policy” now is surely the time. Putin thinks that it will all die away, that the outrage will pass. We must prove him wrong. - Telegraph London.
Boris Johnson is the mayor of London, a columnist with The Daily Telegraph and a former editor of The Spectator.