• U.S.

The Price of Isolation

4 minute read
George J. Church

For the past several years, Iran has been busy making itself the world’s odd man out: ignoring United Nations efforts to end its war with Iraq, boycotting the U.N. Security Council because of its alleged anti-Tehran bias, attacking neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf. Last week it paid the price for its self-imposed isolation. Twice it sought an international condemnation of the U.S. on an issue on which Washington would otherwise have been vulnerable, the July 3 shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 over the gulf. But twice it came away with nothing.

Iran’s first plea was to the International Civil Aviation Organization, meeting in Montreal. But of the 33 nations that sit on the I.C.A.O.’s governing body, only four (the Soviet Union, China, Czechoslovakia and Cuba) were in favor of condemnation. Iran eventually had to settle for a statement that merely “deplored” the incident and promised an investigation.

Simultaneously, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s Foreign Minister, was trying to convince the Security Council that the shootdown was deliberate. He read a transcript of conversations between the pilot of the doomed Airbus and Iranian flight controllers that seemed to indicate that Flight 655 had been proceeding at a normal altitude, speed and flight path. However, on one crucial point — whether the U.S.S. Vincennes had tried to warn the Airbus — the transcript was inconclusive. Flight 655 received no warnings, but the pilot may have been too busy chattering to his ground controllers to listen to an emergency channel over which the messages presumably would have been sent.

Velayati was in effect beaten before he began. Iran had delayed its presentation for two days while trying to round up the nine votes (out of 15) needed for condemnation of the U.S., but gave up and decided not to present a draft resolution. The Security Council session instead served largely to advance the presidential campaign of George Bush, who happily volunteered to present the American case.

Bush conceded that many details of the shootdown “remain unclear.” But he hammered away on two points: 1) Iran “must bear a substantial measure of responsibility” because it “allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with | passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in battle” (the Vincennes was fighting with Iranian speedboats); 2) the underlying cause of the tragedy was Iran’s insistence on continuing the gulf war against Iraq. Again and again Bush pointed out that Iran has defied U.N. Resolution 598, which calls for a negotiated end to the war, although Iraq has accepted.

The White House had given Bush some ammunition early in the week by announcing that the U.S. would pay “compensation” — everybody avoided the word reparations — to the families of the 290 people killed aboard Flight 655. The U.S. was doing so voluntarily, said Ronald Reagan, because “we are a compassionate people.” The President brushed aside reporters’ comments about a poll showing 61% of the American public opposed to compensation. That, said Reagan, was because of the unpopularity of the Khomeini government, and the compensation would not be made to or through that government. Probably it will be routed through the Red Crescent, the arm of the Red Cross in Muslim countries.

Nothing else about the payments has been decided: whether the families will all be offered the same or varying amounts, and whether the Administration can find the money under existing appropriations or will have to ask Congress to put up the money. Several lawmakers immediately made grandstanding demands that release of the funds be tied to freedom for U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Nonetheless, the offer of compensation underscored a dramatic difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which to this day has refused to pay anything to the families of passengers aboard Korean Air Lines Flight 007, shot down by the U.S.S.R. in 1983. That difference undoubtedly helped the U.S. escape the condemnation that international bodies were quick to vote against the Soviets after that tragedy.

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