Next to Israel, Iran was the largest overseas operator of the Phantom. A total of 32 F-4Ds, 177 F-4Es, and 16 RF-4Es (plus 8 F-4Es borrowed from the USA and subsequently returned) were supplied to Iran before the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist regime resulted in a cutoff of further arms supplies.
The Shah of Iran had ambitious plans to use his country's oil wealth to make Iran into a major military power in the Persian Gulf region. The United States government actively supported the Shah's ambitions, hoping that his government would be effective counter to any Soviet expansionist intentions in the area. As part of this expansion of Iranian military power, the Nirou Havai Shahanshahiye Iran (Imperial Iranian Air Force) placed a order for 16 F-4Ds in 1967. A second batch of 16 more F-4Ds was ordered later.
The first batch of F-4Ds arrived in Iran on September 8, 1968, with a total of 32 F-4Ds being ultimately delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force. Iranian F-4Ds were used in several unsuccessful attempts to intercept Soviet MiG-25s that were spying on Iran. The first combat use by Iran of the F-4D was in 1975 when Iran provided military assistance to the Sultan of Oman in actions against rebels. One of these F-4Ds was lost to ground fire. During a border clash with Iraq in 1976, F-4s armed with AGM-65t Maverick missiles attacked an Iraqi armored ground formation.
In further pursuit of the Shah's ambitious goals, the government of Iran ordered 208 F-4Es from McDonnell during the early and mid-1970s. The first examples were delivered in March of 1971. A total of 177 F-4Es were delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force between the years 1971 and 1979. However, in 1979, the growing unrest in Iran forced the Shah to flee his country and go into exile, and a fanatical Islamic fundamentalist revolution took over the government. The new Islamic Republic of Iran immediately began to assume an anti-Western stance, and on February 28, 1979, the US government placed an embargo on further arms deliveries to Iran. The remaining 31 F-4Es on the contract were never delivered.
After Germany, Iran was the largest customer for the RF-4E, a unarmed reconnaissance version of the F-4E built strictly for export. A total of 27 examples were ordered by Iran. The first RF-4E destined for Iran rolled off the production line at McDonnell in St Louis in the late fall of 1970. The first RF-4Es arrived in Iran in 1971. Fifteen more RF-4Es were delivered in succeeding years. However, the final 11 RF-4Es destined for Iran were cancelled in February of 1979 for political reasons after the fall of the Shah.
By the time that the Shah was forced to flee, Iran had 188 operational Phantoms. However, the 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 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 Islamic Republic Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) was only a shadow of its former self, and when Iraq attacked Iran in September of 1980, only 40 percent of the Iranian Phantom fleet was operational.
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. At first, IRIAF Phantoms took part in deep penetration raids against targets in and around Baghdad and supported ground operations at the front. 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. In addition, most of the time, the APQ-120 radar of the Iranian F-4E Phantoms was inoperable because of the lack of spare parts caused by the arms embargo, which meant that the Sparrow missile could not be fired.
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. Losses during the first 9 months of the Iran-Iraq war were estimated to be 60 Phantoms, with many more being out of action due to cannibalization or the lack of spare parts. The effects of the arms embargo and the shortage of spare parts caused the number of Phantoms which were available for combat steadily to decrease, and at the beginning of 1983, only 12 to 35 Phantoms could be put into the air at any given time. 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.
The Iranians found it extremely difficult to keep their Phantom fleet operational all throughout the Iran-Iraq war. The Phantom is a very complex, maintenance-intensive aircraft, requiring 135 man-hours of maintenance in the shop for each hour in the air. The lack of spare parts caused by the arms embargo plus the general lack of adequate numbers of trained maintenance personnel made things even worse. A defecting Iranian colonel claimed that Iran's F-4 force was down to only 20 flyable aircraft by the end of 1986, with no RF-4Es still being operational.
Iran was only able to keep its F-4s flying by scrounging spare parts and replacements from whatever source it could. Israel secretly delivered Phantom spare parts to Iran, presumably thinking that by doing this it would help to keep Iraq occupied. There were reports that Israel supplied critical spare parts for the Phantom's APQ-120 radar, which made it possible to fire the Sparrow semiactive radar-homing missile. In addition, Iran was able to purchase some arms supplies by buying them on the world market, either legally or illegally. In August 31, 1984, an Iranian F-4 pilot defected with his aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and upon investigation his aircraft was found to have components that came from Israel and several NATO countries.
Another clandestine source of arms for Iran was the United States. The United States government generally tilted toward Iraq during the initial stages of the war, and even supplied some intelligence to Iraq. However, in an attempt to win the freedom of hostages held by pro-Iranian guerillas in Lebanon, the United States began a clandestine shipment of arms to Iran in 1985. Most of these arms consisted of TOW and Hawk missiles, but there are reports that spare parts for the Phantom's APQ-120 radar were also delivered. Israel was an important intermediary in these arms deliveries. The story finally leaked out into the media in November of 1986. It was later revealed that the money obtained in payment from Iran had been diverted to pay for arms supplied to the Contras in Nicaragua, in direct contravention of Congressional prohibition of such deliveries. The revelation of this arms deal in the media was a major source of embarrassment to the Reagan administration and caused a constitutional crisis.
There is even a report that 23 ex-USAF F-4Es were secretly transferred to Iran in the mid 1980s via Paraguay.
On June 5, 1984, two Iranian F-4Es were intercepted by two Saudi Arabian F-15C Eagles when they appeared to threaten Saudi oil facilities, and one of the F-4Es was shot down. This was the only time when one McDonnell product shot down another.
Although Phantom availability remained quite low all throughout the remainder of the Iran-Iraq war, as late as January of 1988, the IRIAF was still able to mount rocket attacks during the tanker war in the Gulf.
When the war ended in 1988, the IRIAF probably had only a dozen or less Phantoms that were still in good enough condition to fly. Estimates of the number of Phantoms that are currently operational with the IRIAF vary widely. Somewhere between 70 and 75 Phantoms are believed to be currently flying in Iran. Surprisingly, a few F-4Ds actually remain in service, but most of the IRIAF Phantoms are the F-4E version, plus a small-number of RF-4Es. IRIAF Phantoms have been subject to local upgrades--the APQ-120 radar of the F-4E and the APQ-109 radar of the F-4D have been significantly improved in range in both the tracking and search modes, and the IRIAF F-4E now even has a limited look-down, shoot-down capability. Most of the IRIAF Phantoms are now operated in an air-to-ground role or maritime strike capacity.
In the 21st century, the Iranian government still has between 50–75 F-4s in service. Among these, there are still some original F-4Ds updated with improved avionics, including limited look-down radar On 30 November 2014 Al Jazerra reported that an Iranian F-4 had conducted an airstrike in Iraq against Islamic State militants. The United States confirmed the attack several days later, but Iran did not confirm or deny Iranian airstrikes had taken place; both denied they coordinated any sort of air attack against ISIS forces in Iraq.
The following is a list of USAF serial numbers of Phantoms delivered to Iran. All of these aircraft were new builds, with none being diverted from USAF stocks.
67-14869/14876 McDonnell F-4D-35-MC Phantom 67-14877/14884 McDonnell F-4D-36-MC Phantom 68-6904/6911 McDonnell F-4D-37-MC Phantom 68-6912/6919 McDonnell F-4D-38-MC Phantom 69-7711/7726 McDonnell F-4E-46-MC Phantom 69-7727/7742 McDonnell F-4E-47-MC Phantom 71-1094/1101 McDonnell F-4E-51-MC Phantom 71-1102/1115 McDonnell F-4E-52-MC Phantom 71-1116/1129 McDonnell F-4E-53-MC Phantom 71-1130/1142 McDonnell F-4E-54-MC Phantom 71-1143/1152 McDonnell F-4E-55-MC Phantom 71-1153/1166 McDonnell F-4E-56-MC Phantom 72-0266/0269 McDonnell RF-4E-48-MC Phantom 73-1519/1534 McDonnell F-4E-57-MC Phantom 73-1535/1549 McDonnell F-4E-58-MC Phantom 73-1550/1554 McDonnell F-4E-59-MC Phantom 74-1725/1728 McDonnell RF-4E-61-MC Phantom 74-1729/1736 McDonnell RF-4E-62-MC Phantom 75-0222/0257 McDonnell F-4E-63-MC Phantom 78-0751/0754 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom Order cancelled in 1979, planes reduced to components. 78-0788 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom Order cancelled in 1979, plane reduced to components. 78-0854/0864 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom Order cancelled in 1979.