Reading the Tomcat’s American service record would suggest the plane was only involved in a modest number of aerial clashes. In fact, the opposite is true.
Let’s rewind back to the 1970s. The American government is best buddies with the oppressive shah ruling Iran. The shah sees a demonstration of the F-14 and the F-15 Eagle—and decides the Tomcats are awesome, especially as pesky Iraqi MiG-25s are regularly overflying the country on reconnaissance missions and outrunning everything thrown at them. A total of seventy-eight state-of-art fighters are delivered to Iran between 1976 and 1979, as well as a hundred Phoenix Missiles.
Of course, American-Iranian relations get very awkward after the shah is overthrown, with harsh words such as “Great Satan” being spoken and hostages taken in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But the Tomcats remained—except for one the U.S. never delivered—even if the advanced fighters no longer received spare parts and technical support from the United States and fell into disrepair.
Canada even attempted to buy them all back from Iran at bargain price. But remember the movie Argo about how Canada helped some of the U.S. embassy staff slip out of Iran? Yeah . . . the Iranians got wind of that, and that’s why you don’t have Canadian Tomcats.
Tehran soon had cause to be relieved that the Argo incident nixed the sale, because shortly thereafter they were invaded by Iraq in a massive war that lasted nine years and is estimated to have caused one million military and civilian deaths on both sides. The Iranian Tomcats were deployed to defend Iranian airspace, and proved vastly superior to Iraqi MiGs, Su-20s and Mirages. [More crucially the Iranian pilots were better trained than their Iraqi counterparts as the Shah heavily favored his Air Force.]
The Tomcat’s radar proved so powerful that the Iranian Air Force actually used it as a sort of improvised AWACs plane in the backfield that identified hostile attackers and directed friendly aircraft to intercept them—while contributing its own long-range missiles into the mix. At first the Iranian Air Force could only get a dozen or so of its F-14s into the air, and was forced to cannibalize the remaining aircraft for spare parts. However, during the infamous Iran-Contra Affair, the U.S. secretly funneled additional spare parts for Tomcats to Iran in exchange for promises from Iran to help release U.S. hostages, leading to an increase in the number of operational Tomcats.
Aviation historian Tom Cooper attributes over 160 aerial victories to Iranian F-14s in his definitive book, which is based on interviews with Iranian pilots. Unsurprisingly, Iraqi sources claim their losses were much lower, and the actual kill totals remain mired in controversy.
However, it is clear that the Iranian Tomcats scored at a minimum dozens of aerial victories and far outclassed their opponents. Iranian Tomcats even appear to have shot down several super-fast MiG-25s, which could fly up to Mach 3, and speedy Tu-22 bombers. Iraqi fighters were even instructed to disengage if confronted by Iranian F-14s. Iran’s top ace from the war, Jalil Zandi, reportedly scored eleven kills.
Iran also used Phoenix missiles during the conflict—in fact, at the beginning, the Iranian F-14s were only capable of using the advanced missiles. The U.S. Navy, concerned about potential conflict with Iran, scrambled to develop countermeasures against its own Phoenix missiles. Iran resorted to clandestine black-market purchases to acquire additional batteries for the missiles and later hotwired their F-14s to use Sidewinders and Sparrows.
Iran also attempted to mount Russian R-27 missiles on the Tomcat, though that didn’t work out. Four Iranian Tomcats were converted to drop bombs, however. Once, one even dropped an enormous seven-thousand-pound bomb on Iraqi troops—though it missed.
Cooper’s book maintains only seven Tomcats were lost in action—several of them from friendly fire. (Iraq initially claimed more than seventy shot down!) An eighth plane defected to Iraq and was shipped to the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, Iraq acquired more capable MiG-29 and Mirage F-1EQ fighters armed with Magic 2 missiles. Though Iranian F-14s never encountered the former, they did duel frequently with the latter. The Mirages reportedly shot down three F-14s, while thirty-three of the F.1s were shot down in return.
Iran still flies Tomcats today, despite the immense challenge of maintaining them in serviceable condition without spare parts. Iran has had to rely on black-market purchases to circumvent the U.S. arms embargo, and continues to succeed in obtaining parts despite U.S. legislation drafted in 2008 specifically intended to bring a halt to the trade. Iran has also developed its own domestic technologies to keep their F-14s operational, including wiring them to use new radars and deadly Russian R-73 missiles. Heck, Iran even has its own Top Gun miniseries!
How many Iranian F-14s in flyable condition is unclear, with figures offered ranging from a few dozen to as many as forty. For years, F-14s played a major role in intercepting and chasing off U.S. drones spying on Iranian nuclear facilities such as Bushehr. Recently, an Iranian F-14 was filmed escorting a Russian Tu-95 bomber as it flew on its way to bomb targets in Syria.
Source: The National Interest