Plane Wrong Blame Game: How attacks on Iranian & Russian airliners are forgotten

By Neil Clark

The clamor to blame Iran and ‘Russian missiles’ for this week’s UIA PS752 plane crash in Iran is a reminder of how geopolitics plays its part in determining which disasters get the coverage, and which don’t.

A missile taking down a passenger airliner, which had departed from Tehran airport, with heavy loss of life. No I’m not talking about this week’s Ukrainian International Airlines PS752 crash, and the speculation about how it was caused, but the proven take-down by a surface-to-air missile of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988. Never heard of that one? Well, it’s not surprising, as it was the US which shot the aircraft down. 290 people lost their lives and guess what? The US did not formally apologize.

The downing of the Iranian passenger airline thirty-two years ago was put down as a technical error. These things happen, don’t you know. But it was all very different five years earlier, when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, with the loss of 269 lives. Unlike Iran Air Flight 655, which was over Iranian territorial waters, the South Korean plane had strayed all of 365 miles from its assigned route and was in a closed area of Soviet airspace. The Soviets –not unreasonably, given the heightened Cold War tensions at the time– thought it was a spy plane and did send international warning signals, which did not receive a response. It’s worth mentioning a US surveillance plane was also in the area.

I remember how the media covered it at the time. The shooting down was proof of the depravity of the ‘Evil Empire.’ “Murder in the Air” was the headline on the cover of Newsweek. US President Ronald Reagan called it a “terrorist act” and “an act of barbarism.” Twenty-one more people died in the Iran Air 655 missile attack but it was the Korean shoot-down which got the most headlines, because it fitted dominant Cold War narratives.

It’s different when Russians themselves are the victims. Another air disaster which has disappeared down the memory hole is the downing of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 over the Black Sea on October 4, 2001. The flight was en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in Russia. It was taken down accidentally by a missile fired by the Ukrainian military. But hey, it’s only the Russians and Iranians that do this kind of stuff, isn’t it?

More recently, on October 31, 2015, we had the blowing up of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over the North Sinai. It was carrying Russian holidaymakers back home from Egypt. A bomb was put on the plane and the death cult ISIS claimed responsibility. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described it as a “warning shot” for Moscow.

Imagine the outcry if Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had described an attack on a plane carrying UK holidaymakers in the same, disgusting way. But Lavrov, of course, would never do that. He has too much humanity.

As on land, in the air some people are more equal than others. We all know what ‘MH17’ denotes, don’t we? It was the Malaysian Airlines flight which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014 and which came down over Ukraine, with 298 fatalities. We remember that one because the finger of blame has been pointed in the West at Russia and pro-Russian rebels, firing a Buk surface-to-air missile. It was used as an excuse to impose further sanctions on Russia.

But what about MH370? That’s not so well remembered today, despite taking place just a few months before MH17 came down. To refresh your memory MH370 was the Malaysian Airlines plane en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing which literally vanished into thin air, with 239 people on board. But Russia can‘t be blamed in any way for that, so it’s dropped out of the headlines. There’s no geopolitical points which can possibly be scored. No excuse to impose more sanctions. The neocons aren’t interested.

Planes can be shot down, on purpose or by accident, but if it’s the ’good guys’ who do it, or who are suspected of doing it, then don’t expect to be reminded of it. Before MH370 the world’s ‘most mysterious’ air crash was one that was so mysterious we’re still in the dark about who was responsible for it over 40 years on. It was the explosion/crash of Malev flight MA240 in the sea near Beirut in September 1975 with the loss of 60 lives. It can’t be ruled out that the Tupolev Tu-154 plane, flying from Budapest to Lebanon was taken down by a missile strike.

But why? A large delegation of PLO activists were supposed to be on the plane, but in the end they didn‘t fly. (Only a day earlier the PLO had opened an office in Budapest). There were suspicions the plane might have been transporting military supplies. Was it downed by mistake (Beirut was a war zone at the time), or did someone deliberately target it, because of its cargo and who was thought to have been on board?

Something was going on but the whole episode remains shrouded in secrecy. A report on it remained ‘top secret’ in Hungary in 2007, long after the communists had left power.

We’ll probably never know what happened to flight MA240 or indeed MH370, but if either could be blamed on a geopolitical adversary of the West, then rest assured, the situation would soon change.