An enthusiast with an interest in vintage American warplanes would doubtlessly enjoy the skies over Tehran during Iran’s annual Sacred Defense military parades. After all, where else in the world today can you actually see a flying F-14 Tomcat? Nowhere, bar Iran. Which before the 1979 revolution the only country ever allowed to buy that highly advanced jet. Despite the best efforts of Washington to try and ground those hi-tech jets following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 many of Iran’s F-14’s have remained operational until the present day. This has been in spite of American efforts to ground them through an arms embargo and the general paucity of spare parts and costs pertaining to the basic maintenance of the jets ageing engines and air frames.
Iran’s Air Force today is a notably diverse one. It’s inventory consists primarily of older American jets, planes and helicopters bought before 1979, when the U.S. implemented an arms embargo on the country. In addition there are some Soviet and French made jets which fled Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and were consequently confiscated by Tehran and integrated into their air force.
To this day French-made Dassault Mirage F-1 jets – which were previously used by the Iraqis to, among other things, fire Exocet missiles at Iranian ships in the Gulf – have been used by the Iranians to fly drug interdiction raids near Iran’s often volatile frontiers with Afghanistan and Pakistan. One was lost to SA-14 MANPAD fire while flying in that role. An air base near the major Iranian city of Mashhad, Shahid Nasser Habibi TFB.14, is named in honour of the pilot who lost his life in that incident.
Iranian briefly attempted to beef up its beleaguered air force after its lengthy eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980’s by purchasing some MiG-29 Fulcrum interceptor jets from Moscow (it’s worth bearing in mind that Russia is the only country to have officially sold Iran combat aircraft since the 1979 Iranian revolution).
Amusingly one reason they never bought so many of those jets, according to Tom Cooper’s excellent history of the Iranian Tomcats, was apparently because their older F-14’s (which were the earlier ‘A’ models with highly unreliable engines and fatigue from just under a decade of war with few spare parts to keep them operational) were invariably able to defeat them in war games.
Since the onset of the 2000’s however there were interesting attempts by the Iranians to acquire additional jets for their highly diverse air force. Many, many rumours about imminent arms deals to speculation about sources Tehran would procure arms from. Not unlike last years rumour that Russia was about to delivery highly-sophisticated MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ high-altitude interceptors to their embattled ally in Damascus there were rumours back in 2007 that Moscow and Tehran were negotiating an arms contract which would see the latter purchasing up to 250 advanced Russian Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighters along with 20 accompanying Ilyushin Il-78 Midas long-range tanker planes.
Other, primarily baseless, rumours about Iran purchasing Chinese clones of such Russian jets have had brief forays on the rumour mills over the years. The Venezuelan military under the late President Hugo Chavez considered Venezuela’s ageing fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons to Tehran. Something which saw Washington warn Caracas off trying to sell their American-made jets on to a third country. Interestingly enough the rumour about a massive Iranian purchase of Russian Flankers came shortly after Russia negotiated the delivery of such jets to Venezuela. Which did ultimately materialize.
Even though most of Iran’s air force consists of ageing American made jets it is highly doubtful that Iran will be purchasing anything produced General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin or the likes anytime soon. Especially since Washington’s biggest consumers of hi-tech American weaponry in the region, namely Israel and the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, justify their military build-ups on the pretext they are necessary to defend against, and combat, Tehran.
While China and Russia are the most likely sources (indeed Moscow has begun to honour its contract to send Iran advanced S-300 air defense missile systems and possibly even Su-30 Flankers) France was also another potential source of advanced jets. While Tehran has successfully maintained and operated older French-made Mirage F-1’s for two-and-a-half decades now military analysts are doubtful that Tehran would jump at the opportunity to purchase newer Mirages to expand and modernize its air force since it would require hefty and costly investments in both arms and supporting infrastructure for such a multi-role fighter-bomber.
An option more congruent with the present make-up of the built of Iran’s air force would be the purchasing of additional Russian interceptors and perhaps ground attack planes, like the aforementioned Frogfoot, followed by a gradual phasing out of the older jets which have served a lot longer, and endured a lot more, than neither their builders nor operators likely imagined.