If there’s anything that can be learned from the Iranian military shooting down a Ukrainian airliner just after it took off from the Tehran airport, it’s this:  stupid, trigger-happy people with their hands on missile launchers are a dangerous combination.

On Jan. 8, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired by Iranian military forces. All 176 people on board were killed.

The Iranian government has accepted responsibility for the incident, although they first claimed it was mechanical failure. Official sources say the plane flew too close to sensitive military installations, and there were fears of American actions against Iran. They claim the military officers thought it was an incoming American missile.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has expressed regret over the incident.

Some people have wondered how the Iranian military could have mistaken the radar profile of a passenger airliner with an incoming American missile. They noted the plane could easily have been detected taking off, and that it was climbing at the time. An attacking missile would have been descending.

Unfortunately, such mistakes are nothing new. In fact, the United States made a similar mistaken shoot-down of an Iranian airliner more than 30 years ago.

In July 1988, the U.S. Navy vessel U.S.S. Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf. This was near the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The ship had been engaging Iranian gunboats and was in Iranian territorial waters at the time. The crew mistakenly thought the plane was an Iranian F-14 going into attack mode.

The plane was in a recognized international air transport corridor, although it did not respond to attempts from the Vincennes to contact it. Among their many mistakes, the crew of the Vincennes thought the plane was descending when it was actually climbing. Two Navy ships nearby correctly recognized the plane was climbing. One of them radioed the Vincennes and asked what they were shooting at.

The plane exploded in mid-air. All 290 people on board were killed. The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder were never recovered.

The United States took responsibility for the shoot-down. President Ronald Reagan sent a note to the Iranian government expressing his deep regret over the loss of life. The U.S. Government paid the Iranians $61 million in compensation for the families of those who died.

We don’t know the sequence of events that led to the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, and we will likely never know all the details. We can be sure of this much:  just like with the Vincennes incident, mistakes were made by people who should have known better.

As John Wayne’s character said in an old World War II movie, “Everyone makes mistakes. But, when we make them, people can get killed.”

The U.S. Navy reviewed their procedures and practices after the Vincennes incident to try to make sure similar incidents wouldn’t happen in the future. We would hope the Iranian military would do something similar in the wake of shooting down the Ukrainian airliner.

It’s actually a good sign that the Iranians are taking responsibility for this. That’s more than what we could’ve expected from this regime in the past. It may have helped things that so many photos were taken of the missile as it approached the airliner. The initial claim of mechanical failure didn’t stand up to the photographic evidence.

As Dwight Eisenhower once said, “When you’re caught with your hand in the cookie jar, it’s kind of pointless to say you’re were in the barn at the time.”

The Iranians were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. We can only hope they’ll make positive changes that will make things safer.


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