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By Tom Cooper, War Is Boring
More than 40 years after Iran acquired the F-14 Tomcat from the United States, there are still plenty of misconceptions about the deal. Most published accounts offer a simple explanation — that Iran needed F-14s to counter over-flights by Soviet-operated MiG-25R Foxbat reconnaissance aircraft.
The truth is a bit more complicated. The Soviet overflights were actually a response to Iran’s own increasing belligerence, which dovetailed with the country’s determined acquisition of better and better U.S.-made warplanes.
Bear in mind that after the CIA staged a coup against the Iranian government in 1953, Tehran was a close U.S. ally.
In the years that followed, the U.S. and Iranian militaries worked closely together, and – since Iran shared a border with the USSR – various U.S. military and intelligence services established bases in Iran.
Iran-based U.S. reconnaissance operations targeting the USSR explored routes along which bombers could penetrate Soviet air space. In the late 1960s, American pilots flying Iranian RF-5A recon planes flew over the former USSR in order to find and photograph newly-constructed military installations.
In 1971, the United States sold a batch of McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantoms to Iran. The RF-4’s advanced reconnaissance capabilities were a true eye-opener for the Iranians. The RF-4 was faster and longer-ranged than any other comparable combat aircraft in that part of the world at that time. In following years Iranian RF-4s flew hundreds of clandestine reconnaissance sorties deep over Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Yemen and the Soviet Union.
Iran’s RF-4s flew hundreds of clandestine sorties over the Middle East and inside the Soviet Union. Tom Cooper Collection
Iranian operations over the former USSR were undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force apparently under the code name Operation Dark Genie – and, at least initially, were flown by mixed Iranian-U.S. crews.
Indeed, when one of the Iranian RF-4s was shot down by a Soviet MiG in November 1973, its crew consisted of an American pilot and an Iranian back-seater. Despite that mishap, such operations continued. By 1978, some Iranian RF-4 pilots had logged more flight time inside Soviet air space than most of the Soviet air force’s pilots had in total.
When the Soviets attempted to retaliate by sending MiG-25s on a recon overflight of Iran in 1978, a pair of brand-new Iranian F-14s painted the MiGs with their radars. As far as is known, the Soviets attempted no similar adventure over Iran for at least the next 10 years.
According to legend, in July 1973 — following two detailed briefings in Iran — the U.S. government had organized a fly-off for Iranian shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that pitted an F-14 against an F-15. The U.S. Navy F-14 crew put up such a stunning performance that the Shah promptly placed an order for the Tomcat.
While there can be no doubt about the Navy’s crew’s skills, stories of this kind make it appear as if the Shah of Iran, his government and the entire Iranian air force were a bunch of gamblers. In fact, the Iranian decision to buy F-14s can be traced back to the early 1960s, when the Iranians – emboldened by steadily increasing earnings from sales of oil and gas – decided to equip their air force with the best combat aircraft available.
The Mach 2.4-capable MiG-25Rs of the Soviet air force were fast but no major threat to the Iranians – and thus no true reason for Tehran placing its massive order for F-14s. Tom Cooper Collection
At the time it was very unusual for the Pentagon and the Congress to receive a letter of intent for an arms buy from a “Third World country.” Few took seriously Iran’s requests for General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bombers starting in 1964. Instead, the Iranian air force had to make do with 100 much-less-powerful Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters.
However, the Iranians persisted – and learned to exploit the influence of their ruler to achieve their objectives. As a fully qualified pilot with strong connections to several U.S. aerospace companies – not to mention to the U.S. intelligence establishment — the Shah was able to personally negotiate arms deals with American politicians. In 1967 he managed to secure a deal for 32 F-4Ds, a few of which remain in Iranian service in 2017.
At the time, Great Britain was in the process of withdrawing from its possessions east of the Suez. The Shah skillfully presented himself to the U.S. public as a protector of peace and stability in the Middle East who could fill the vacuum the British were creating. In 1969, the Shah successfully negotiated another deal — this time for 130 F-4Es, then the latest variant of that type.
The Iranians kept on pushing. After a major study about future air-defense requirements, the Iranian air force concluded that Iran’s rugged terrain dictated the acquisition of airborne early warning platforms and interceptors equipped with long-range radars and weaponry.
The Shah flew into action again. Sometime between 1970 and 1972, he even requested a briefing on the Lockheed YF-12 – the stillborn interceptor variant of the famous SR-71 Blackbird, a Mach-three-capable strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
An F-14A being built for Iran as seen during the final phase of assembly at Grumman’s factory in Calverton, Long Island. Tom Cooper Collection
That deal never materialized, but the two next did. One was the Iranian order for 80 F-14 Tomcats. The other was for seven Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS. While the E-3 was still in development as of 1973, the Tomcat was ready … sort of.
In fact, the F-14 and E-3 both faced fierce resistance in the U.S. Congress owing to their cost and complexity. The Shah ordered the Iranian bank Mehli to credit Grumman so that the company could build the 80 F-14s for Iran.
Encouraged by this step, other investors followed and Congress was left with little choice but to continue financing the U.S. Navy’s own acquisition of the F-14. After all, the Navy couldn’t let some Third World country get the world’s best interceptor while it bought none for itself.
The Iranians were perfectly aware that they weren’t just buying aircraft. They insisted on acquiring the entire weapon system including aircraft, avionics, weapons and support infrastructure. That’s why Iran remains capable of operating its surviving F-14s today.