Are US concessions funding Iran’s quest to rebuild its air force?
It was morning in the city of Isfahan in central Iran when a loud boom rattled windows and stopped Iranians in their tracks. Smoke was rising on the horizon. Rasoul Motamedi, the regional army spokesman, sought to quickly dispel the rumours. “The F-14 fighter jet suffered a technical malfunction this morning and the pilot and co-pilot parachuted in… The F-14 was destroyed,” he said. A little over 40 years ago, President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger traveled to Tehran to meet the shah. The Iranian monarch was increasingly upset with Soviet overflights of Iranian territory. Nixon and Kissinger were unhappy that the Soviet Union had signed a friendship treaty with neighboring Iraq the previous month. During the meeting, the leaders struck a deal for Iran to buy state-of-the-art F-14 Tomcats, at the time the most advanced fighter jet in the world.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 interrupted the armament of Iran. At the time of the shah’s ouster, Iran had 79 F-14s in its physical possession. The F-14 never gave Iran the dominance it was looking for. Many Iranian pilots training in the United States when the shah fell remained in America rather than risk imprisonment or execution, especially since Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime suspected that every officer in the air force was a royalist.
The Iran-Iraq war, occasional crashes, decades of sanctions, and the cannibalization of some aircraft to provide parts for the remnant fleet have eroded Iran’s stable of F-14s.
Various Western estimates put the Iranian fleet of F-14s at less than 20. The World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft gives a slightly higher figure and reports that the Iranian Air Force has 26 F-14As, but notes that “their operational condition in Iranian hands is suspect”. The fact that Iran continues to fly F-14s more than 15 years after the United States retired them shows how outdated the Iranian air force is. Its MiG-29s purchased from Russia shortly after the Iran-Iraq War are also rapidly losing relevance, 45 years after the aircraft was introduced by the Soviet Union. The locally produced Saeqeh by Iran is more effective for showing the flag at air shows than for providing offensive or defensive capability.
While the Islamic Republic has responded to the vulnerability of its air force by rapidly expanding its drone fleet and the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles, the loss of 5% of its F-14s highlights a vulnerability major. This hole in Iran’s capabilities can deter the worst of Iranian behavior. As Tehran continues to “export the revolution” with its backing from proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, Iranian leaders are still seeking plausible deniability so that none of their targets strike at Iran itself.
A lack of hard currency has prevented Iran from rebuilding its air force. In the first 18 months of the Biden administration, however, Iran increased its hard currency reserves by at least an order of magnitude, to $40 billion. This number continues to grow. In the first five months of this year alone, Sino-Iranian trade grew by 18%, to nearly $6.5 billion.
The Biden team may believe that persistent attempts at diplomacy are the best hope for peace, but they may misunderstand Iran’s motives and strategy. While Special Envoy Rob Malley may see diplomacy as a way to find a win-win formula, Iranian leaders may see it more as an asymmetric war strategy to tie the West’s hands as they run the time. The money Iran demands and, through sanctions waivers, waivers and ransoms, the West provides, however, does not benefit ordinary Iranians. Not only does this affect Iran’s nuclear program, but it could also allow the Iranian regime to soon close the biggest hole in its military capability: the absence of any significant air force. Iranian officials have already traveled to China to visit aircraft factories.
As America sits and talks, China trades but may soon recoup the money it pays Iran as Tehran uses its windfall to finance its first major purchase of military aircraft in addition to 30 years.
Biographies of Experts – Now contributing editor in 1945, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies and Shia politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Hiring Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).