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Though the Soviets did it first with the shoot down of the plane that crashed in 1983, Korean Air Lines Boeing 747SP, the U.S. also once accidentally downed a civilian airliner carrying about 300 people on it. On July 3, 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was winding down, US and Iranian ships were involved in some skirmishes in the Persian Gulf. An Airbus A300 took off from a nearby airport, one which was used for both military and civilian purposes. An American cruiser, the USS Vincennes, mistook the plane for an F-14, an American fighter plane that we had sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution, and launched two missiles, downing the plane and killing everyone on board.

President Reagan called the event a “terrible human tragedy,” and stated “we deeply regret any loss of life.” Iran’s UN ambassador condemned the action as ”criminal act,” an ”atrocity” and a ”massacre,” while the US insisted it was a misunderstanding. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush called the idea the US would have shot down the plane deliberately “offensive and absurd,” and argued that allowing passenger flights out of an airport as a naval battle was underway was irresponsible of the Iranians. “They allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in battle,” Bush said. ”That was irresponsible and a tragic error.”

Iran sued the United States in the International Court of Justice, and the American government eventually agreed in 1996 to pay $61.8 million ($93.7 million today) to the families of victims; notably, that amount was 1/30th of the compensation the US secured from Libya for victims of the Lockerbie plane bombing that same year. The US government has never apologized for shooting down the plane, beyond Reagan’s initial statement, and Max Fisher has noted the event contributes to Iranian mistrust of American intentions to this day.

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