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An Iranian boy scatters flowers in the sea Tuesday, July 3, 2007, during a ceremony commemorating the 19th anniversary of the U.S. warship Vincennes missile attack on an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people on July 3, 1988, over the Persian Gulf.

ABOLFATH DAVARI/AP

The shooting down of a civilian airliner with a surface-to-air missile in the hasty, but mistaken, belief it was an enemy warplane has a grim precedent.

Twenty-six years before last week's attack that downed a Malaysia Airlines flight over the Ukraine, killing all 298 on board, U.S. sailors on one of the world's most powerful and sophisticated warships shot down an Iranian airliner with a powerful surface-to-air missile, killing all 290 on board.

There are differences between the two attacks – not least that one was committed by the military of the world's biggest superpower on the direct order of the captain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, who later claimed he believed his warship was being attacked by a diving Iranian warplane. The Vincennes had been scrapping with small Iranian launches in an undeclared conflict zone and had been unlawfully in and out of Iranian territorial waters.

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By contrast, the Russian separatists stand accused of getting support and weapons from Russia's military although there is, as yet, no direct proof of Moscow's involvement in the missile firing.

In 1988, then-president Ronald Reagan defended the shoot down, exonerated the U.S. warship and blamed the Iranians.

"When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack," he said at the time.

In fact, and as became embarrassingly clear in the subsequent investigation, Iran Air Flight 655 was climbing on its regular flight to Dubai and was transmitting the proper civilian identifier showing it was a scheduled flight in an internationally sanctioned airway. There was no diving Iranian warplane except in the minds of excited U.S. sailors in a darkened command centre.

Neither Mr. Reagan nor any successive president ever apologized, let alone acknowledged U.S. responsibility for the attack.

Eight years later, the United States paid $132-million in compensation families to the victims and to replace the Iranian Airbus A-300, although Washington admitted no liability.

In the aftermath of the Vincennes shoot down both Washington and Tehran were playing the blame game.

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In 1988, it was Washington in full denial, proclaiming its innocence and demanding others be held accountable. This time, in the case of the Malaysian passenger jet struck by a missile over eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing that role.

With increasingly stridency, President Barack Obama has sometimes sounded like an echo of Iranian outrage from 1988.

"What exactly are they trying to hide?" the President asked Monday as he fingered Moscow for its still-murky involvement.

Mr. Putin's response: "Nobody should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political aims."

Senior U.S. military officials accused Moscow of training the separatist rebels in the use of powerful SAM systems weeks ago. And a video surreptitiously taken after the attack seems to show the tracked BUK launcher – minus two missiles – loaded on a truck and headed for the Russian border. But whether the Russians provided the launcher or whether – as they claim – the separatists captured it after a successful attack on a Ukrainian base, remains unclear.

So far, no evidence has emerged to indicate the attack on MH 17 was deliberate.

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