WASHINGTON -- President Reagan said today the Navy's downing of a civilian Iranian airliner with 290 people aboard was an 'understandable accident' and he disregarded Iran's threats of retaliation.
Returning with his wife, Nancy, from a weekend at Camp David, the president said, 'I won't minimize the tragedy; we all know this was a tragedy.'
However, he said, the Navy ship involved, the Aegis-class cruiser Vincennes, had radar information showing the plane heading directly for the ship.
'It was an understandable accident,' Reagan said.
The Vincennes shot down the Iran Air Airbus A-300 Sunday morning over the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf with a Standard surface-to-air missiles, destroying the plane and killing all the passengers and crew.
The president was asked if he was concerned about Iran's threats of retaliation for the incident and he said, 'You have to think about that, knowing who they are.'
Reagan also rejected any comparisons of Sunday's action with the Sept. 1, 1983, Soviet destruction of a Korean Air Lines jet, saying that the Navy ship's radar did not clearly identify the Iranian airliner, while Soviet fighter pilots had identified the KAL craft as a civilian airliner and then shot it down.
The president also said he would not comment on the details of the incident until the Pentagon's investigation team reports to him. That team left for the Persian Gulf today.
Reagan returned to the White House today and arranged to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the Truman Balcony with a host of friends.
Those invited to share the first family's Fourth of July festivities were: Dr. Richard Davis, Mrs. Reagan's brother, and Mrs. Davis and their son Geoffrey; former CIA Director Richard Helms, who served in the Nixon administration as ambassador to Iran and Mrs. Helms; composer Marvin Hamlisch, who has been the impresario at the White House musical programs aired by the Public Broadcasting System; columnist George Will and White House chief of staff and Mrs. Kenneth Duberstein. The children of Will and Duberstein also were invited.
The president conferred with top advisers and issued a statement of regrets over the deaths Sunday. He was kept informed of developments from 4:52 a.m. EDT Sunday, when he received his first call from national security adviser Colin Powell.
At that time, Pentagon officials mistakenly reported that the Vincennes had shot down an Iranian U.S.-made F-14 jet fighter in the Strait of Hormuz. But Reagan later received a report confirming an Iranian radio broadcast that the airliner was shot down in a missile attack. Iran claimed there were 66 children aboard the plane.
'I am saddened to report that it appears that in a proper defensive action by the USS Vincennes this morning in the Persian Gulf an Iranian airliner was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz,' Reagan said. ''This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew and their families.
'We deeply regret any loss of life. The course of the Iranian civilian airliner was such that it was headed directly for the USS Vincennes, which was at the time engaged with five Iranaian Boghammar boats that had attacked our forces. When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack.'
Presidential aides said the administration planned 'no change' in its controversial Persian Gulf policy, even though the incident is bound to revive questions about the risks of the U.S. presence in the Middle Eastern waterway.
'The only U.S. interest in the Persian Gulf is peace and this tragedy reinforces the need of that goal with all possible speed,' Reagan said.
Vice President George Bush, the prospective Republican presidential nominee, declined to comment. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the likely Democratic nominee, said he hoped an investigation would answer all the questions.
The Reagan administration has proclaimed U.S. neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war while asserting the right of free passage in international waters. The U.S. reflagging of 11 Kuwaiti tankers and an announcement earlier this year that the United States would assist neutral shipping under attack escalated the dangers of being caught in the crossfire of the nearly 8-year-old conflict.
Some aides rushed Sunday to the White House and the State Department to deal with the developments, but Reagan decided not to interrupt his stay at the presidential retreat and most of the top advisers, who were on holiday, were reached by telephone.
Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci briefed congressional leaders and cables were sent worldwide to allied and Gulf State leaders, the United Nations and the International Civil Aviation Agency, said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
The State Department sent cables to U.S. embassies around the world, warning them to guard against possible retaliation. A 'working group' met at the State Department to sift intelligence information and coordinate foreign policy activities.
Reagan's public statement followed a telephone conference call with his top advisers, including Bush, Powell, Carlucci, Secretary of State George Shultz and Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Fitzwater gave the following chronology of calls to Reagan:
Powell called the president about the shooting of an Iranian F-14 fighter plane in the Strait of Hormuz by the USS Vincennes, which believed it was under attack. The report later proved to be erroneous.
8:11 a.m. -- The president was given a report with more complete details.
9:50 a.m. -- Deputy national security adviser John Negraponte telephoned Reagan, telling him of an Iranian report that one of its airliners had been downed in the Strait of Hormuz, and there was a 'discrepancy' in U.S. information.
1:05 p.m. -- Reagan discussed the situation in a conference call with top advisers; it was confirmed that the U.S. had accidentally shot down the Iranian plane and Reagan decided to issue a statement.