The F-14A Tomcat was exported to only one foreign customer, the Nirou Havai Shahanshahiye Iran, or Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF).
The government of the Shah of Iran had been granted large amounts of military assistance by the United States government in the hope that Iran would act as a bulwark against Soviet expansions southward into the region of the Persian Gulf. In addition, Iranian oil revenues made it possible for the Shah's government to purchase massive amounts of Western-manufactured arms, including advanced warplanes such as the Northrop F-5A and E, the McDonnell F-4D and E Phantom, and the Lockheed P-3F Orion. In addition, large numbers of Chieftain and Shir main battle tanks were purchased from Britain.
In May of 1972, President Richard Nixon had visited Iran and the Shah had mentioned to him that MiG-25 Foxbat aircraft of the Soviet Air Force had regularly been flying unimpeded over Iranian territory. The Shah asked Nixon for equipment which could intercept these high-speed intruders, and Nixon told the Shah that he could order either the F-14 Tomcat or the F-15 Eagle.
In August of 1973, the Shah selected the F-14 Tomcat, and the sale was approved by the US government in November of 1973. The initial order signed in January of 1974 covered 30 Tomcats, but in June 50 more were added to the contract. At the same time, the Iranian government-owned Melli Bank agreed to loan Grumman $75 million to partially make up for a US government loan of $200 to Grumman which had just been cancelled. This loan enabled Grumman to secure a further loan of $125 from a consortium of American banks, ensuring at least for the moment that the F-14 program would continue.
The Iranian Tomcat was virtually identical to the US Navy version, with only a few classified avionics items being omitted. The base site for Iranian Tomcat operations was at Isfahan. Imperial Iranian Air Force aircrews began to arrive in the USA for training in May of 1974, and shortly thereafter the first Grumman pilots arrived in Iran.
The Iranian Tomcats were fairly late on the production line, and were therefore delivered with the TF30-P-414 engine, which was much safer than the compressor-stall-prone P-412 engine. The first of 80 Tomcats arrived in Iran in January of 1976. By May of 1977, when Iran celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Royal House, 12 had been delivered. At this time, the Soviet Foxbats were still making a nuisance of themselves by flying over Iran, and the Shaw ordered live firing tests of the Phoenix to be carried out as a warning. In August of 1977, IIAF crews shot down a BQM-34E drone flying at 50,000 feet, and the Soviets took the hint and Foxbat overflights promptly ended.
The IIAF Tomcats bore the US Navy serial numbers of 160299/160378, and were assigned the IIAF serial numbers 3-863 to 3-892 and 3-6001 to 3-6050. The last of 79 Tomcats were delivered to Iran in 1978. One Iranian Tomcat (BuNo 170378) was retained in the USA for use as a testbed. Iran also ordered 714 Phoenix missiles, but only 284 had been delivered at the time of the Revolution. These Phoenix missiles were of slightly-reduced capability as compared with those delivered to the US Navy.
Toward the end of the 1970s, there was increasing chaos in Iran. On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled the country and on April 1, an Islamic republic was declared, with the Ayatolla Khomeini as the head of state. The Imperial Iranian Air Force was renamed the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). The new government rapidly took on an anti-Western stance, denouncing the United States as the "great Satan". Following the Islamic revolution, massive numbers of contracts with Western arms suppliers were cancelled by the new government, including an order for 400 AIM-54A Phoenix missiles. Relations with the USA became increasingly strained, especially by the occupation of the US embassy in Teheran by militant students and the holding of 52 Americans hostage. The US responded with a cutoff of all political and military ties to Iran and the imposition of a strict arms embargo.
This arms embargo against Iran imposed by the West caused a severe spare parts and maintenance problem. Even the best-equipped units were often poorly trained and could not operate without Western contractor support. The political upheavals and purges caused by the fundamentalist revolution made the situation much worse, with many pilots and maintenance personnel following the Shah into exile. As a result, by 1980 the IRIAF was only a shadow of its former self.
This embargo was to have a especially severe long-term effect on the Tomcat fleet, since the embargo prevented the delivery of any spares. In addition, by August of 1979, all 79 of the F-14A Tomcats had supposedly been sabotaged so that they could no longer fire their Phoenix missiles. According to various accounts, this was done either by departing Grumman technicians, by Iranian Air Force personnel friendly to the US shortly after the fall of the Shah, or even by Iranian revolutionaries in an attempt to prevent operations by an Air Force perceived to be too pro-Western.
The Iran-Iraq war began on September 22, 1980 with an Iraqi air attack on six Iranian air bases and four Iranian army bases. It was followed by an Iraqi land attack at four points along a 700-kilometer front. Before the war ended in 1988, somewhere between 500,000 and a million people were dead, between 1 and 2 million people were injured, and there were two to three million refugees. Although little-covered in the Western media, the war was a human tragedy on a massive scale.
Air power did not play a dominant role in the Iran-Iraq war, because both sides were unable to use their air forces very effectively. Fighter-vs-fighter combat was rather rare throughout the entire course of the Iran-Iraq war. During the first phase of the war, Iranian aircraft had the fuel and the endurance to win most of these aerial encounters, either by killing with their first shot of an AIM-9 or else by forcing Iraqi fighters to withdraw. However, at this stage in the war the infrared homing missiles used by the fighters of both sides were generally ineffective in anything other than tail-chase firings at medium to high altitudes.
Initially, Iranian pilots had the edge in training and experience, but as the war dragged on, this edge was gradually lost because of the repeated purges within the ranks of the Iranian military which removed experienced officers and pilots who were suspected of disloyalty to the Islamic fundamentalist regime or those with close ties or sympathies with the West. As Iranian capabilities declined, Iraqi capabilities gradually improved. After 1982, Iraq managed to improve its training and was able to acquire newer and better arms from French manufacturers, especially the Dassault Breguet Super Etendard and the Mirage F-1. The Mirage F-1 was capable of firing the Matra R-550 Magic air-to-air missile, which had a 140-degree attack hemisphere, a head-on attack capability, high-g launch and maneuver capability, and a 0.23 to 10-km range. The Magic could also be launched from the MiG-21, and proved to be far superior than the standard Soviet-supplied infrared homer, the Atoll. Mirage F-1s were reported to have shot down several Iranian aircraft with Magic missiles and as having scored kills even at low altitudes. After 1982, Iraq generally had the edge in most air-to-air encounters that took place, with Iran losing most of the few air-to-air encounters that took place after 1983 unless it used carefully-planned ambushes against Iraqi planes that were flying predictable routes. The Iranians could not generate more than 30-60 sorties per day, whereas the number of sorties that Iraq could mount steadily increased year after year, reaching a peak as high as 600 in 1986-88.
It has generally been claimed by Western sources that the Tomcat never proved very effective in IRIAF service during the war, since only a relatively small number could be kept airworthy at any one time. Very often, they served in a mini-AWACS role by virtue of their powerful radars and were deliberately not risked in combat. Several Iranian Tomcats were reported lost in action, most of the reported losses being kill claims by Iraqi sources. Iraq first claimed to have shot down an Iranian F-14A on November 21, 1982, the kill reportedly being made by a Mirage F1EQ. In March 1982, a downed Iranian pilot is reported to have told his captors that he was really surprised to see an Iraqi MiG-21 shoot down such an advanced aircraft as an F-14. On September 11, 1983, two Iranian Tomcats attempting to intercept Iraqi aircraft attacking Iranian positions were claimed to have been shot down. One Tomcat was lost in a dogfight with Iraqi aircraft on October 4, 1883, another in an air battle over Bahragan on November 21, 1983 and single examples were lost on February 24, and July 1, 1984. Iraq claims to have shot down three F-14As in a single day on August 11, 1984. It is impossible to judge the reliability of these claims, but there is probably nothing intrinsically implausible about them.
In contrast, Iranian sources claim that about 35-40 Iraqi fighters were shot down by Tomcats during the war, and that only one IRIAF Tomcat was lost in air-to-air combat. Iranian F-14As are known to have shot down at least three Iraqi fighters, including two Mirage F1s and one MiG-21. An Iranian Tomcat achieved a kill against an Iraqi Mirage F1 as late as the spring of 1988, indicating that the IRIAF was able to keep at least one Tomcat operational.
Recent books by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop seem to suggest that the Iranian use of the Tomcat might have been more effective than had been previously reported. Even though the AIM-54 was supposedly rendered ineffective by sabotage, the AN/AWG-9 radar did remain operational, and the Iranian Tomcats could still fire AIM-7 and AIM-9 missiles. Most IRIAF Tomcats flew with a missile load of four Sparrows and two Sidewinders. These books also report that during the Iran-Iraq war there were several Tomcat aces with over 8 kills each, and that there were over 100 total victory claims. It was often the case that the mere appearance of one or more Tomcats was enough to send Iraqi fighters fleeing for cover.
Even though several AIM-54s were indeed sabotaged, most of them were eventually brought back into service and some were actually used in combat. These books reported that during the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian Tomcat crews scored numerous AIM-54 kills. There were several accounts of Iranian pilots using AIM-54s successfully against Iraqi aircraft formations. Iran has also produced a reverse-engineered version of the AIM-54, although in limited numbers.
It is extremely difficult to get any reliable estimates of just how many Iranian F-14As were in operational service at any one time during the war. Western intelligence estimates tended to put the number of serviceable Tomcats flying with the IRIAF at a very low level, often less than ten, with other planes having been deliberately cannibalized to keep at least a few flying. In the summer of 1984, the Pentagon estimated that Iran could field only 15-20 Tomcats, maintaining them largely by cannibalization. Iranian sources tended to discount these Western estimates as "imperialist propaganda", and place the number of in-service Tomcats at a much higher value.
Another indication that Western intelligence may have consistently underestimated Iranian capabilities in this area may have taken place on February 11, 1985, when no less than 25 Iranian F-14A Tomcats took place in a mass flypast over Teheran. In spite of the Western arms embargo, Iran seems to have been able to maintain a more-or-less steady supply of spare parts for its fleet of Tomcats, Phantoms, and F-5Es. Some of these parts seem to have been smuggled into Iran by collusion with Israel. Some may have come in as a result of the "arms-for-hostages" deal in which the US government supplied arms to Iran in exchange for its assistance in getting hostages held in Lebanon released. The 2015 edition of Flightglobal World Air Frces puts the number of F-14s in service in Iran at 24.
The accidental shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 by missiles launched from the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988 with the loss of 290 lives may have been caused by the accidental misidentification of the Airbus A300 as an IRIAF F-14A by the ship's radar system operators. Rumors had been going about that Iranian F-14As had been fitted with the capability to launch air-to-surface anti-ship missiles.
Despite the Iranian regime's official anti-Communist stance (the Communist Party is officially banned in Iran), there are persistent rumors that one or perhaps several IRIAF F-14A were delivered to the Soviet Union in exchange for other arms assistance. At least one Iranian F-14A crew has reportedly defected to the Soviet Union. There is every reason to believe that the F-14A, its AWG-9 fire control system, and its Phoenix missiles were completely compromised at this time. An examination of the Phoenix supposedly helped the Soviets to build the Vympel R-33 (known in the West as AA-9 Amos) long-range missiles which arm the MiG-31 Foxhound. However, Gennadiy Sokolovskiy of the Vympel Design Bureau denies that the R-33 was based on the AIM-54 Phoenix, maintaining that he has never actually seen a live Phoenix.
Today, the IRIAF still has some 50-55 F-14s, but only about 30 of them are probably active at any one time. The United States still seems to regard Iran's F-14 fleet as a potent threat in case hostilities ever break out, and has taken special pains to ensure that the Iranian government cannot obtain access to spare parts for their Tomcats. As US Navy Tomcats are retired from service, the boneyards at Davis Monthan AFB are deliberately destroying them as they arrive at the facility, just to ensure that no Tomcat spare parts end up on the black market.