Iran   Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) • یروی هوایی ارتش جمهوری اسلامی ایران
Islamic Republic of Iran (Jomhuri-ye Eslāmi-ye Irān)

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( Ground-Support )

Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II in Service with Iran

During the early 1960s, the Shah maintained tight control over Iran--he banned or suppressed most opposition parties, muzzled the press, and strengthened his secret police, the dreaded SAVAK (Sazman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat-e Keshvar). Elections to the Iranian legislature, known as the Majlis were closely controlled.  Nevertheless, under prodding from the Kennedy administration in the US, the Shaw began a major program of reform in 1963, and marked the beginning of nearly a decade of impressive economic growth and relative political stability at home. During this period, the Shah also used Iran's enhanced economic and military strength to secure for the country a more influential role in the Persian Gulf region, and he improved relations with Iran's immediate neighbors and the Soviet Union and its allies. 

In the aftermath of the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, the Shah announced his intention that Iran would play the primary role in guaranteeing Gulf security. This strategy happened to coincide with President Richard M. Nixon's strategy for the region, which sought to encourage United States allies to shoulder greater responsibility for regional security. During his 1972 visit to Iran, Nixon took the unprecedented step of allowing the Shah to purchase just about any conventional weapon he wanted from the United States arsenal in any quantities he believed necessary for Iran's defense

As part of the ambitious plan by the Shah of Iran to make his nation the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf, the government of Iran ordered massive amounts of arms from the West, particularly the United States. Among these were large numbers of F-5E and F Tiger IIs to equip the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF).

The first examples were delivered in January of 1974, when 28 F-5Fs were received in Iran for conversion training. By this time, Iran had disposed of virtually all of its earlier-model F-5A/Bs, selling them to Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, and Jordan.

A total of 166 F-5Es and Fs were supplied to Iran between 1974 and 1976, enough to equip eight squadrons. The Imperial Iranian Air Force F-5E/Fs were equipped to a high standard, with an onboard Litton inertial navigation system and weapons/ ballistic computer.

By early 1977, the Iranian economy had begun to run into trouble. The attempt to use Iran's oil revenues to finance industrial expansion and construction proved to be overly ambitious, and the massive military buildup greatly strained Iran's resources and caused severe economic and social dislocation. Official corruption became rampant, rapid inflation took place, and the gap between the rich and poor got wider and wider.  In addition, by 1978 there were 60,000 foreigners in Iran--45,000 of them Americans--engaged in business or in military training and advisory missions. Combined with the superficial Westernization evident in dress, life styles, music, films, and television programs, this foreign presence tended to intensify the perception that the Shah's modernization program was threatening the society's Islamic and Iranian cultural values and identity. Increasing political repression and the establishment of a one-party state in 1975 further alienated the educated classes.

The Shah was well aware of the rising resentment and dissatisfaction in his country and the increasing international concern about the suppression of basic freedoms in Iran. In addition, President Jimmy Carter, who took office in January 1977, was making an issue out of human rights violations in countries with which the United States was associated. The Shah, who had been pressured into a program of land reform and political liberalization by the Kennedy administration, was sensitive to possible new pressures from Washington. The government attempted to ameliorate some of the problems with the growing gap between the rich and the poor by introducing some progressive economic measures such as free secondary education, increased financial support for university students, an ambitious national health insurance plan, and a profit-sharing plan with workers in several key industries.  In response to international pressure, the Shah did release some political prisoners and did introduce some protections for civilians brought before military courts. 

Most of the new progressive economic measures were badly implemented and did little to alleviate the growing gap between rich and poor.  An attempt to cool off the overheated economy introduced some austerity measures which proved to be widely unpopular. A more open opposition now began to appear, and people how heretofore had been silent began to speak out and demand the restoration of basic liberties. Certain political parties were allowed to resume activity.

A series of increasingly violent protests broke out in Iran.  Initially, protests were primarily led by middle-class intellectuals, lawyers, and secular politicians which demanded the restoration of constitutional rule.  However, the protests soon began to be led by religious elements and were centered on mosques and religious events. The protesters sometimes used a form of calculated violence to achieve their ends, attacking and destroying carefully selected targets that represented objectionable features of the regime, such as nightclubs and cinemas that were symbols of moral corruption and the influence of Western culture as well as banks that were symbols of economic exploitation.   

In June of 1963, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, a religious leader in Qom, had been arrested after making a fiery speech in which he directly attacked the Shah.  Khomeini was released from house arrest in April 1964, but was was arrested again in November after giving another fiery anti-government sermon, and was sent into exile in Turkey. In October 1965, he was permitted to take up residence in the city of An Najaf, Iraq--the site of numerous Shia shrines--where he was to remain for the next thirteen years. Khomeini, in exile in Iraq, continued to issue antigovernment statements, to attack the Shah personally, and to organize supporters. He argued that monarchy was a form of government abhorrent to Islam, that true Muslims must strive for the establishment of an Islamic state.   A network of clerics worked for Khomeini in Iran, returning from periods of imprisonment and exile to continue their activities. Increasing internal difficulties in the early 1970s gradually won Khomeini a growing number of followers.

The protests in Iran now aimed at more fundamental change.  In slogans and leaflets, the protesters attacked the Shah and demanded his removal, and they depicted Khomeini as their leader and an Islamic state as their ideal. From his exile in Iraq, Khomeini continued to issue statements calling for further demonstrations, rejected any form of compromise with the regime, and called for the overthrow of the Shah.

On December 9 and 10, 1978, in the largest antigovernment demonstrations in a year, several hundred thousand persons participated in marches in Tehran and the provinces. In December 1978, the Shah finally began exploratory talks with members of the moderate opposition.  At the end of December, a National Front leader, Shapour Bakhtiar, agreed to form a government on the condition that the Shah leave the country. Bakhtiar secured a vote of confidence from the two houses of the Majlis on January 3, 1979, and presented his cabinet to the Shah three days later.  The Shah, announcing he was going abroad for a short holiday, left the country on January 16, 1979. As his aircraft took off, celebrations broke out across the country.  He was destined never to return.

Once installed as prime minister, Bakhtiar took several measures designed to appeal to elements in the opposition movement. He lifted restrictions on the press, he released the remaining political prisoners and promised the dissolution of SAVAK, the lifting of martial law, and free elections. He announced Iran's withdrawal from CENTO, canceled US$7 billion worth of arms orders from the United States, and announced that Iran would no longer sell oil to South Africa or Israel. Although Bakhtiar won the qualified support of moderate clerics, his measures did not win him the support of Khomeini and the main opposition elements, who were now committed to nothing less than the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new political order.

In the meantime, Khomeini was making plans to return to Iran. Bakhtiar sought unsuccessfully to persuade Khomeini to postpone his return to Iran until conditions in the country were normalized.  Nevertheless, Khomeini arrived in Tehran from Paris on February 1, 1979, received a rapturous welcome from millions of Iranians, and announced he would "smash in the mouth of the Bakhtiar government."  He labeled the government illegal and called for the strikes and demonstrations to continue. On February 5, Khomeini named Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of a provisional government.  In many large urban centers local komitehs (revolutionary committees) had assumed responsibility for municipal functions, including neighborhood security and the distribution of such basic necessities as fuel oil. Government ministries and such services as the customs and the posts remained largely paralyzed. Bakhtiar's cabinet ministers proved unable to assert their authority or, in many instances, even to enter their offices. The loyalty of the armed forces was being seriously eroded by months of confrontation with the people on the streets. There were instances of troops who refused to fire on the crowds, and desertions were rising. In late January, air force technicians at the Khatami Air Base in Esfahan became involved in a confrontation with their officers. In his statements, Khomeini had attempted to win the army rank and file over to the side of the opposition. Following Khomeini's arrival in Tehran, clandestine contacts took place between Khomeini's representatives and a number of military commanders. 

On February 8, uniformed airmen appeared at Khomeini's home and publicly pledged their allegiance to him. On February 9, air force technicians at the Doshan Tappeh Air Base outside Tehran mutinied. Units of the Imperial Guard failed to put down the insurrection. The next day, the arsenal was opened, and weapons were distributed to crowds outside the air base. The government announced a curfew beginning in the afternoon, but the curfew was universally ignored. Over the next twenty-four hours, revolutionaries seized police barracks, prisons, and buildings. On February 11, twenty-two senior military commanders met and announced that the armed forces would observe neutrality in the confrontation between the government and the people. The army's withdrawal from the streets was tantamount to a withdrawal of support for the Bakhtiar government and acted as a trigger for a general uprising. By late afternoon on February 12, Bakhtiar was in hiding, and key points throughout the capital were in rebel hands. The Pahlavi monarchy had collapsed.

Medhi Bazargan became the first prime minister of the revolutionary regime in February of 1979.  However, central authority had completely broken down, and hundreds of semi-independent revolutionary committees were functioning in major cities and towns.  Factory workers, civil servants, students, and white-collar employees had seized control of many of their organizations, and there was considerable disorder in the ranks of the military.  Many parties, ranging all the way from the far left to the far right, from secular to Islamic fundamentalist, were all in contention for control of the country.  Through all of this chaos, Khomeini made policy pronouncements, named personal representatives to key government organizations, established new institutions, and announced decisions without consulting his prime minister. The new prime minister now found he had to share power with the Revolutionary Council, which Khomeini had established in January 1979 and which initially was composed of clerics close to Khomeini.

In May 1979 Khomeini authorized the establishment of the Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Revolutionary Guards).  The Revolutionary Guards was a military force loyal to Khomeini and the clerical leaders and was a counterbalance to the regular army.

Khomeini had charged the provisional government with the task of drawing up a draft constitution. A step in this direction was taken on March 30 and 31, 1979, when a national referendum was held to determine the kind of political system to be established. Khomeini rejected demands that voters be given a wide choice. The only choice that he wanted to appear on the ballot was an Islamic republic, and voting was not by secret ballot. The government reported an overwhelming majority of over 98 percent in favor of an Islamic republic, and Khomeini proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran on April 1, 1979.

Khomeini unveiled a draft constitution on June 18. Aside from substituting a strong president for the monarchy, the constitution did not differ markedly from the 1906 constitution and did not give the clerics an important role in the new state structure. Although the provisional government initially had advocated a popularly elected assembly to complete the Constitution, Khomeini indicated that this task should be undertaken by an "Assembly of Experts", which would be dominated by Shia clergy. 

The Assembly of Experts convened in August 1979 to write the constitution in final form for approval by popular referendum. The clerical majority was generally dissatisfied with the essentially secular draft constitution and was determined to revise it to make it more Islamic. Produced after three months of deliberation,  the new constitution was formally approved by referendum in December of 1979. 

Under the Islamic Republic of Iran constitution, supreme authority is vested in the faqih, described as a "just and pious jurist" who is recognized by the majority of the people as being best qualified, with Khomeini recognized as the first faqih. The faqih performed an overall supervision of all aspects of the government--he appointed the members to all the important government posts--the Council of Guardians, the chief judges, the chief of the armed forces, the commander of the Revolutionary guards, and the commanders of the navy, air, force, and army. There was a provision for a President as head of state, but the faqih had the power to approve candidates for presidential elections and had the power to dismiss a President who had been impeached by the Majlis.  The head of government was the Prime Minister, who was selected by the President with the approval of the Majlis.   The members of the Prime Minister's cabinet (known as the Council of Ministers) were responsible for establishing government policies and executing laws.  The members of the Council were selected by the Prime Minister, with the approval of the President and the Majlis.  Legislative power is granted to the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the parliament, or Majlis. The Majlis not only has the responsibility of approving the prime minister and cabinet members but also has the right to question any individual minister or anyone from the government as a whole about policies. The Constitution also provides for the Council of Guardians, which is charged with examining all legislation passed by the Majlis to ensure that it conforms to Islamic law.

Abolhasan Bani Sadr, an associate of Khomeini from the Paris days, was elected as the first President.

As Iran was turning itself into an Islamic republic, the Shah, who was seriously ill, was admitted to the United States for medical treatment. Iranians feared that the Shah would use this visit to the United States to secure United States support for an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic. On November 1, 1979, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Tehran to demand the Shah's extradition. On November 4, young men who later designated themselves "students of the Imam's line," occupied the United States embassy compound and took United States diplomats hostage. Bazargan resigned two days later.  No prime minister was named to replace him.

In April the United States attempted to rescue the hostages by secretly landing aircraft and troops near Tabas, along the Dasht-e Kavir desert in eastern Iran. Two helicopters on the mission failed, however, and when the mission commander decided to abort the mission, a helicopter and a C-130 transport aircraft collided, killing eight United States servicemen.

The failed rescue attempt had some severe negative consequences for the Iranian military. Radical factions in the IRP and left-wing groups charged that Iranian officers opposed to the Revolution had secretly assisted the United States aircraft to escape radar detection. They renewed their demand for a purge of the military command.  Bani Sadr was able to prevent such a purge, but he was forced to reshuffle the top military command. In June 1980, the chief judge of the Army Military Revolutionary Tribunal announced the discovery of an antigovernment plot centered on the military base in Piranshahr in Kordestan. Twenty-seven junior and warrant officers were arrested. In July the authorities announced they had uncovered a plot centered on the Shahrokhi Air Base in Hamadan. Six hundred officers and men were implicated. Ten of the alleged plotters were killed when members of the Pasdaran broke into their headquarters. Approximately 300 officers, including two generals, were arrested, and warrants were issued for 300 others. The government charged the accused with plotting to overthrow the state and seize power in the name of exiled leader Bakhtiar. Khomeini ignored Bani Sadr's plea for clemency and said those involved must be executed. As many as 140 officers were shot on orders of the military tribunal.  Wider purges of the armed forces soon followed.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime that took over the country assumed a rigidly anti-Western stance, and an arms embargo was imposed by most Western governments against Iran. This embargo caused a severe spare parts and maintenance problem for Iran's fleet of F-5s and other US-supplied aircraft, with many aircraft becoming unserviceable and still others being cannibalized to keep the remainder flying. Even the best-equipped units found it impossible to operate without Western contractor support and often had personnel that were inadequately trained and poorly motivated. The political upheavals and purges caused by the fundamentalist revolution made the situation much worse, with many pilots and maintenance personnel following the Shaw into exile. As a result, by 1980 the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) was only a shadow of what the Imperial Iranian Air Force had been.

One of the earliest focuses of Iran's interest in exporting revolution was the Persian Gulf area. The revolutionary leaders viewed the Arab countries of the Gulf, along with Iraq, as having tyrannical regimes subservient to one or the other of the superpowers. Throughout the first half of 1980, Radio Iran's increasingly strident verbal attacks on the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party of Iraq irritated that government, which feared the impact of Iranian rhetoric upon its own Shias, who constituted a majority of the population. There is also evidence the Iraqis hoped to bring about the overthrow of the Khomeini regime and to establish a more moderate government in Iran.

The friction between Iran and Iraq led to border incidents, beginning in April 1980.  On September 22, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq suddenly launched an invasion of Iran. The assault began 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. Baghdad believed that the post-revolutionary turmoil in Iran would permit a relatively quick victory and would lead to a new regime in Tehran more willing to accommodate the interests of Iran's Arab neighbors. This hope proved to be a false one for Iraq.

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 neither side was able to use its combat aircraft 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 the few aerial encounters that did occur, either by killing with their first shot of an AIM-9 missile 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 had removed many experienced officers and pilots who were suspected of disloyalty to the Islamic fundamentalist regime or those with close ties or sympathies with the West. The effects of the arms embargo and the shortage of spare parts caused the number of F-5s which were available for combat steadily to decrease, and by the beginning of 1983, only 40 to 65 F-5s 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 equipment 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 to 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 air-to-air combat, and Iran lost most of the few encounters that took place after 1983 unless pilots 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 daily 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 F-5 fleet operational all throughout the Iran-Iraq war. 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-5 force was down to only 10 or 15 flyable aircraft by the end of 1986. Iran was only able to keep its F-5s flying by scrounging spare parts and replacements from whatever source it could. Iran was able to acquire spare parts from Greece and other nations which were F-5 users. In addition, spares trickled in from Israel and from the US as part of the "Irangate" dealings.

When the war ended in 1988, the IRIAF probably had only a dozen or less F-5s that were still in good enough condition to fly. Many of the damaged F-5s were stored in bits and pieces or as incomplete airframes. After the end of the war, many of these airframes were rebuilt, overhauled, and returned to service.

Estimates of the number of F-5s in service today in Iran vary greatly. The most pessimistic estimates are about 40, but more optimistic observers claim that somewhere between 60 and 65 IRIAF F-5s are currently operational. In addition, some indigenous upgrades of IRIAF F-5s have been performed. The APQ-159 radar has been improved and upgraded by on-site personnel, and the range in search mode has been increased from 32 to 64 kilometers, and in tracking mode from 16 to 40 kilometers. The IRIAF F-5s are reportedly capable of carrying semi-active homing missiles, and may be able to carry all-aspect IR homing missiles such as the Chinese PL-7, the US AIM-9P Sidewinder, and the Russian R-60 (known AA-8 Aphid). today.

Last revised October 6, 2001

Source :


Iran AF

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