The Iranian Army: 1900-1921

Prior to World War One (1914-1918; also known as the Great War) Iran lacked a single unified standing army capable of resisting military invasions, a situation that lasted until 1921.

When the Great War ended in 1918, Iran’s military situation was dire. There were now four distinct military forces, in which each acted according to different interests: (1) the Qajar government national army (2) the Persian Cossacks (3) the South Persia Rifles and (4) the Gendarmerie.

(1) The Qajar Government force. Nominally the “national army”, this was in fact a highly ineffective force. Military equipment (especially guns and cannon) were mostly outdated and of substandard quality. Iranian arsenals were also poorly managed. The last military acquisitions were Austrian artillery pieces that had been delivered to Iran in 1898 (negotiations for more purchases had been made in 1901). Iranian troops were still using obsolete percussion and matchlocks, but there were numbers of more modern Snider and Martini (single-shot breech-loading) rifles becoming available.

1-Qajar troops-Germanic helmetsVery interesting photo of an assembly of Qajar troops prior to World War One; these troops show marked imperial German influence as seen by a number of troops wearing “Germanic” type helmets. The backpacks of the above troops resemble those worn by imperial German and Austro-Hungarian troops (Source: Russian Guns.Ru website).

The Iranian military of the early 1900s was in a desperate state. While Iran had on paper a total of 150,000 troops at Mozzafar e Din Shah’s time, barely a fraction of such troops could be raised when World War One began in 1914. The few available troops were hardly effective as a fighting force. Farjollah Hosseini, the Chief Consul of Iran to England in the early 1900s summarized the desperate state of the Iranian military as follows:

“…the military office is nominally 70,000 men but is officially nil as numbers of our formations have never seen service…it would take six months to get our army to move if we were to mobilize available formations. We have no weapons, no ammunition reserves, no military schools…no military regulations, no factories and no battleships” [Unit for the Publication of Documents-Office of International Political Studies, 1991, pp. 92]

While Hosseini’s observations regarding military factories and schools were somewhat exaggerated, much of what he told the British was accurate. Many Iranian officers lacked knowledge of modern military doctrines, and most troops were poorly trained and disciplined, and morale was low.

Qajar TroopsA small Qajar army detachment prepares to march (Source: قشون‌ نظامی ایران در زمان قاجار and Public Domain). Note the slovenly state of their appearance, such as boots, gear on belts (or lack of), unkempt uniforms (note person in the rear with oversized military coat). Due in large part to the Qajar administration’s mis-management, cronyism and corruption, the Iranian army by the early 20th century was poorly equipped and trained to defend the country’s borders against Russian, Ottoman and British (or British-Indian) intrusions. 

By the onset of the First World War, the Qajar army had ceased to be an effective military force capable of combating and repelling invasions from modern and well-equipped foreign armies.

Qajar Army Music BandFrench postcard with photograph of a Qajar military band attired in red-blue uniforms (Source: Fouman).

A serious obstacle against serious military reform was corruption in just the militayr apparatus but the Qajar government and society as a whole. Put simply, corrupt officials in important posts (civilian and military) often placed their personal wealth, personal interests and status ahead of their country’s interests. As a result, regular army troops, conscripts and levies continued to suffer from arrears in pay. The army even failed to provide its troops with adequate food, housing and a whole host of other essential services. To make matters worse, these same troops would also often see their personal income pocketed by their corrupt officers. Forced to make ends meet, Iranian soldiers were thus forced to engage in low-level vocational services and odd-jobs in the civilian sector such as hard labour and gardening. All of this meant time taken away from regular military training and preparedness. All of this in turn translated to increasing anger and resentment among ordinary Iranian troops.

Selling bread Tehran qajar eraShopkeepers at a bread outlet in a Tehran street in the early 20th century (Source: Due to arrears in payments or outright theft of monthly payments by their superior Qajar officers, many regular troops had to find other jobs just to make ends meet. 

The weaknesses of Qajar army forces allowed for foreign governments to invade Iran at will and to  sponsor breakaway movements on Iranian soil.

Tribal levies normally support the central government but increasing Qajar weakness and disorganization in Tehran meant that recruiting these troops for the regular army became increasingly difficult. Thus, while these warriors remained effective in combatting (though not stemming) foreign invaders, tribal warriors became increasingly beholden to the security issues of their respective local provinces rather than the country as a whole.

(2) The Persian Cossack Brigade. This was first formed in 1879, with the arrival of Colonel Alexei Ivanovich Dumantovich to Tehran with a Cossack contingent. The Persian Cossacks were essentially modeled and trained by Imperial Russia. These were essentially under Russian command and served imperial Russian interests in Iran.

1-Persian Cossack reviewElements of the Persian Cossack Brigade in Tehran sometime in the early 20th century, possibly in the 1910s prior to World War One; note the Persian sabres (Source: Russian Guns.Ru website).

The Persian Cossacks supported Czarist actions in suppressing the Constitutional Movement in Iran – notably the infamous bombing of Iran’s democratically elected Majlis (Parliament) by Colonel Vladimir Platonovitch Liakhov on June 23, 1908. The Persian Cossacks were finally disbanded on December 6, 1921.

(3) The South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.). This force had been formed by the British Empire by Fall 1916 on Iranian soil during World War One. Led mainly by British officers,  the S.P.R. worked to safeguard British interests (for the main part) in southern Iran, notably the Persian Gulf coastline and the new oil industry in Khuzestan province.

2-South Persian RiflesInteresting photograph (1917?) of British and Iranian officers of the South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) of Shiraz, under the command of Lieut.-Col. W. A. K. Fraser, M.C., of the Central India Horse (Source: The Illustrated First World War). Note the description in the above photograph which clearly outlines the S.P.R.s objectives: “Guarding Our Interests in the Land of the Shah: officers of the South Persian Rifles”.

The S.P.R. had first recruited approximately 8000 Iranians and Indians into its force. Units of the S.P.R. were then stationed in Fars, Kerman and Bandar Abbas. The S.P.R. proved critical in suppressing anti-British revolts in the south during the war. At its height, this force was to have a maximum size of 11,000 thousand troops. Many Iranian politicians opposed the S.P.R., noting that this force was the British version of the Persian Cossack Brigade. London had assured that the S.P.R. would be turned over to Iranian control after the conclusion of the First World War. The force was finally disbanded in October 1921.

(4) The Gendarmerie. The Iranian parliament had voted as early as 1910 to hire officers from neutral countries with Sweden  soon chosen for the task. The Swedish mission led by Colonel H.O. Hjalmarsen arrived in Iran by May 1911 to quickly work towards building an indigenous Iranian gendarmerie. The mission proved successful.

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm gunsThe most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Picture Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment.  For more on the Iranian Gendarmerie, consult Stephanie Cronin’s article in the Encylopedia Iranica.

The Gendarmerie proved to be a highly motivated and relatively efficient force. These were the only forces loyal to the country and took no orders from Russia or Britain. They were however, a small force and despite their good training, lacked heavy weapons which prevented them from being able to repel foreign invasions.

Military Reform: Continuing Challenges until 1921

A serious problem for Iran was foreign, namely British and Russian interference: neither wished for Iran to have a strong, unified and modern national army. The British however, shifted their position, especially after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czarist regime in Russia in 1917.

The Russians (Czarist and their Soviet successors) remained unfavourable to the notion of a modern, strong and militarily capable Iranian state. This is because if Iran were to possess a modern army, this would then be capable of repelling foreign invasions. Russia in particular was sensitive about this as it had conquered Iranian territory in the Caucasus and continued to harbour ambitions in not just northern Iran but all way towards the Persian Gulf. Despite having instituted a long-term and well-funded anti-Iranian cultural campaign in its conquered Caucasian territories, especially in the Arran-Shirvan region (Republic of Azerbaijan since May 1918), the Russians were deeply perturbed by the Caucasus’ historical ties with Iran. A reformed Iranian army and a strong national government in Tehran were seen as a threat by the Czarist regime in Moscow.

Early 19th century Map of IranMap of Iran in 1805 before the territorial losses to Russia of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Iran also lost important eastern territories such as Herat  which broke away with British support (Picture source: CAIS).

Following the end of the First World War, the importance of forming a unitary and modernized military was finally instituted. As noted previously, the disbanding of the pro-Russian Cossack brigade (now under British command following the overthrow of the Czars by the Bolsheviks in 1917) and the pro-British South Persia Rifles resulted in Iran finally having a unified national army, one of the chief aims of the Constitutional Movement of the Early Twentieth century.

Iran Air Force Operations and the UN in Congo (1962-1963)

The article below was first forwarded to by Shahyar Mahabadi (posted originally in the IIAF website ). Kindly note that the text and picture captions below has been edited from the original version which appeared in the IIAF website.


ONUC was established initially in July 1960 to ensure the withdrawal of Belgian forces, to assist the Government in maintaining law and order, and to provide technical assistance. The function of ONUC was subsequently modified to include maintaining the territorial integrity and the political independence of the Congo, preventing the occurrence of civil war, and securing the removal from the Congo of all foreign military, paramilitary and advisory personnel not under the United Nations Command, and all mercenaries. On completion of the mandate, the Mission was withdrawn in June 1964. For more on the UN’s Congo mission, see here… and here…

The Iranian Air Force played a major role in the success of the UN mission. Four F-86 Sabre fighter aircraft were deployed for the UN mission. The route of Iranian Air Force F-86 “Sabre” fighters from Iran to Congo was as follows: Dezful –Tehran- Dhahran (Saudi Arabia)-Jadeh (Saudi Arabia) -Addis a Baba (Ethiopia)–Entebbe (Uganda)–Katanga( Congo). The flight plan traversed more than 6,300 Km over a time of 10.

IIAF-Crew-Vahdati ABIranian airmen and crew pose with their F-86 Sabre combat aircraft in Dezful’s Airbase in 1963 (Source: IIAF).

Iranian Air Force aircraft were mission-ready at all times. There were no accidents or fatalities during the mission. The one exception was one incident during which Lt. Alaghband’s aircraft was hit by a bullet the F-86 was quickly repaired and ready to fly in less than 24 hours. It is notable that the four F-86 fighters of the IIAF flew more sorties than the Philippines and Sweden who had a total of 18 aircraft.

IIAF-F-86 Sabre

Iranian Air Force F-86 Sabre – note “UN” insignia on above aircraft (Picture Source:

Iran’s airmen were commended by the United Nations for their excellent performance. After returning  to Iran Maj. Seyed Javadi, Major Rabii (Base Operation Commander), Lt. Mostafavi and Capt. Farywar were decorated with medals for their exemplary performance. In honor of these operations, Iranian Postal services issued a special stamp six Months after the mission on United Nation Day.

IIAF-Un StampIran’s postal services issued the above stamp in honor of the Iranian Air Force operations for the United Nations in the Congo in the early 1960s (Source: IIAF).

Originally, the medal awarded for service in the Congo was a UN blue and white ribbon with a bar indicating Congo service. In 1963 it was decided that a distinctive ribbon should be issued. The ribbon subsequently awarded carries a broad center band of green, symbolic of hope which was thought to be appropriate for a young nation, and also to represent the Congo Basin. The center band is flanked by two narrow white bands, representing the UN Mission and at either end are two bars of UN blue. To qualify for the medal, three months of service in the Mission were required.

IIAF-MedalsMedal issued for service for the UN in the Congo in 1962-1963 (for more on medals see here…)

The Iranian Air Force crew assigned to the UN mission were: Maj. Amir Kamiabipour ” Mission Planner” Capt. Mostafa Hadj Seyed Javadi “Mission Commander“. 1St.Lt. Iradj Mostafavi (later Brig. General ) 1st. Lt Vahid Kimiagar ( Later Brig. General) 1st. Lt Mohsen Memarian (killed in Aircraft Crash) 1st. Lt Mohammad Alaghband ( Killed in Aircraft Crash) 1st. Lt Esmaeel Memari (Killed in Aircraft Crash) 1st. Lt Mohammad Abolmolouk (later Brig.General) 1st. Lt Mohammad Pezeshki (later Col.) 1st. Lt Nasser Zolali ( Later Brig.General, Died of Cancer ) 1St.Lt. Ali Akbar Farywar (later General) “commander of Support & Maintenance” and 33 maintenance and support crew (kindly forward the names of these personnel to the IIAF website as well as in recognition for their services to the United Nations).

There was also a single C-47 “ Dakota” with 6 crew assigned with support duties for the UN mission. The Aircraft commander was Capt. Hessam Mirtolooi (later general). The C-47 made three sorties from Tehran to the Congo. The formidable Kilimanjaro Heights posed great challenges for the C-47 flying over them, a task which the aircraft successfully accomplished.

IIAF-C 47 DakotaIranian Air Force C-47 Dakota during the UN mission to the Congo (Source: IIAF). Ideal for landings in rough terrain, the venerable Dakota proved its worth in spades during and after the Second World War as a robust and reliable transport aircraft. The Dakota served in several countries decades after the conclusion of the Second World War. Numbers of the Dakota continue to fly in a number of countries.

Record Flight of Iranian Bell helicopter in 1975

A little known fact of the aviation history of helicopters is the record flight taken by an Iranian army Bell 214 helicopter with respect to (a) altitude and (b) time to height categories. The reports of these achievements were reported in the Flight International Journal (March, 9, 1975). Below is the page from the Flight International journal which provided this report.

Bell_Helicopter_Iran2The International Flight journal of March 9, 1975 with the report on the Iranian Bell 214A helicopter.

The Journal reported the following statistics. The first was Maximum altitude achieved at 29,750 feet. This broke the previous record set in 1964 for 25,418 feet set by a UH-D. The other  statistics are cited below:

  • Maximum sustained altitude in horizontal flight – 29,500 feet: 90 seconds
  • Time to 3,000 meters – 9,842 feet: 2 minutes 25 seconds
  • Time to 6,000 meters – 19,685 feet: 5 minutes 55 seconds
  • Time to 9,000 meters – 29,527 feet: 15 minutes 38 seconds

The commanding pilot who set this world record was Major General Manouchehr Khosrowdad (General of Iranian Army aviation). His co-pilot was Clem A. Bailey (Bell assistant chief helicopter test pilot).

Iranian Army Bell 214 helicopterAn Iranian army Bell 214 helicopter in the 1970s (Source: کروچیف). By March 1975, Iran had received a total of 287 Bell 214 helicopters from the United States.

A Short History of the Iranian Railway System

Perhaps one of Iran’s greatest achievements after the First World War was the construction of the 850-mile Trans-National railroad. This finally linked southern and northern Iran, a project that had been bitterly opposed by Imperial Russia in the early 20th century. For the first time the northern agricultural lands and the Caspian Sea ports were linked to ports and oilfields in the south. Construction of the Iranian railway had been an overwhelming task as it required the building of 4,100 bridges and 224 bored tunnels (64 miles in total). Iran’s economy after the First World had been in tatters, especially with increasing chaos due to British, Russian and Ottoman military incursions. Even more impressive was the way in the which the project had been funded: taxes on sugar and tea helped subsidize the project.

Opening ceremony Tehran masjid Suleiman LineUndated photo of the opening ceremony of the Tehran-Masjid Suleiman railway line (Source: Iranvij)

The buildup of the Iranian railway and road systems resulted in a dramatic improvement in the economic sector. Cost and time required for the transportation of goods across the country were now dramatically reduced. As noted by the British Central Office of Information:

“…the Persian people had every reason to be proud of it [the Iranian railway], for they themselves had supplied most of the labor for its construction and they, with a small population living in every circumstance in hardship, had found every Rial of the thirty million Pounds which it had cost” (British Central Office of Information, 1948, p.92 – Source: British Central Office of Information (1948). PAIFORCE: The Official Story of the Persia and Iraq Command 1941-1946. London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office).

Dorood_Train_StationThe Dorood train station in Luristan as painted by Richard H. Jansen (Source: US Army Center of Military History)

By 1933, the Iranian railway and road network system had reduced the cost of transportation to a third of what it had been in 1920. The time needed for transport in 1933 was now reduced to just one-tenth of what it had been in comparison to 1920. The efficiency of the Iranian railway and road networks was one of the primary factors that encouraged the Anglo-invasion of Iran in August 1941. The primary objective of that invasion was to use the Iranian network to supply the Red Army of the Soviet Union. This is because Nazi Germany had been engaged in a massive invasion of the Soviet Union since June 22, 1941 (known as Operation Barbarossa).

Iran station in LuristanAn Iranian railway engineer pauses for a cigarette break at Zagheh station along the Western Iranian mountains; photo dated to 1955 (Source: Avax News).

A Short History of the F-4 Fighter-Bomber in the Iranian Air Force

The article below on the Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom II Fighter-Bomber was originally posted in the IIAF website. Excepting one photo, all other photographs posted below are from miscellaneous sources. Kindly note that the captions/descriptions for each of the photographs are not featured in the IIAF article on the F-4 Phantom II.


The Iranian Air Force was the largest overseas operators of the F-4 Phantom before the Revolution. order were placed 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 Iranian Air Force. Iranian F-4Ds were used in several unsuccessful attempts to intercept Soviet MiG-25 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.

Phantom II northern IranIranian Air Force Phantom II on patrol over the skies of northern Iran (Source: IIAF). Specifications for McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II are as follows: (a) Aircraft type: multi-role fighter (b) combat radius: 786 miles (c) Operational ceiling: 62000 feet (d) Maximum velocity: 1585 mph (e) Power plant: two General Electric J79-GE-17A turbojets rated at 11810 lbs thrust each dry; 17900 with afterburner. The standard weaponry of the Phantom II are as follows: (a) one M61 20mm cannon w/ 640 rounds (b) maximum ordnance 16000 lbs, including bombs, missiles, AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, Maverick (air to ground missile system) and AAMs.

The government of Iran ordered 208 F-4Es and a total of 32 RF-4E from McDonnell during the early and mid-1970s. The first examples were delivered in March of 1971. A total of 177 F-4Es (plus eight F-4Es borrowed from the USA and subsequently returned) and 16 RF-4E were delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force between the years 1971 and 1979. However, in 1979, Revolution took over the government, and on February 28, 1979, the US government placed an embargo on further arms deliveries to Iran. The remaining 31 F-4Es and 16 RF-4E on the contract were never delivered.

The_First_F-4D_Phantom_II_Squadron_of_iran-1971Airmen and support crews pose in front of an F-4D Phantom II in 1971 (Source: Public Domain); the above photo  was taken at Shiraz’s 7th tactical fighter base.

By the late 1970s, the Iranian Air Force was deploying its F-4 Phantoms in the following squadrons:

  • 1st Tactical Air Base, Tehran (Mehrabad): Two Squadrons F- 4E, One Squadron RF- 4E Reconnaisance
  • 2nd Tactical Air Base, Tabriz: Three Squadrons F-4E
  • 3rd Tactical Air Base, Hamadan (Shahrokhi): Three Squadrons F-4E
  • 6th Tactical Air Base, Bushehr: One Squadron F-4E, Two Squadrons F-4D
  • 7th Tactical Air Base, Shiraz: One Squadrons F-4E
  • 9th Tactical Air Base, Bandar Abbas: One Squadrons F-4E
  • 10th Tactical Air Base , Chabahar: One Squadron F-4E

 Mehrabad-Iran-F-4D-brake chuteIranian air force lands with brake chute at Mehrabad airport in the mid-late 1970s (Source: Public Domain).

Onset of the Iran-Iraq War

By late February 1979, Iran had almost 223 operational Phantoms. Contrary to Western reports, F-4 squadrons managed to maintain their combat effectiveness despite widespread political upheavals and personnel purges. Technical malfunctions, often appearing during flight preparation, would reduce the flight packages, but missions were seldom aborted for this reason.

The outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War on the afternoon of September 22, 1980, resulted in the newly re-organized Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) having to rely heavily on its F-4 Phantom units. This legendary veteran fighter-bomber was definitely the star of the Iranian Air Force during the eight-year war with Iraq, performing virtually every combat role, from pure fighter to deep-penetration interceptor. Phantoms were to play a key role in most of the missions far into Iraqi territory, in many cases returning to base after sustaining heavy combat damage.

The F-4’s baptism of fire during the war with Iraq was an unexpected one. The conflict began with an Iraqi air attack on six Iranian air bases and four Iranian army barracks, followed by a land offensive deep into the country at four points along a 435-mile (700km) front. This first Iraqi air attack failed due to rigid and inflexible mission planning, lack of sufficient target intelligence and the use of unsuitable General Purpose (GP) bombs. One F-4E was destroyed by having its nose section cut off in a strafing run on the ramp at the Mehrabad airport, and another F-4 base, Hamedan, also suffered some damage.

Iranian_F-4E_Phantom_II_armed_with_AGM-65_MaverickAn Iranian F-4E armed with Maverick air-ground missiles preparing for take-off (Source: Public Domain). Maverick-armed phantoms wreaked considerable havoc upon Iraqi armored units during the Iran-Iraq war, especially during the operations that led to the liberation of the city of Khorramshahr on May 24, 1981; for more on this topic, see here…

The first Iranian air attack into Iraq saw the successful bombing of Al-Shoibiya naval base, near the port city of Um-Al Qassr, by four F-4s from Bushehr AB, using 1,000lb (450kg) bombs. Among the targets were several anti-shipping missile batteries. This Iranian retaliation was so swift that Iraqi air defense positions had been caught by surprise right across the flight route. The next day, up to 140 Iranian fighter-bombers, including significant numbers of F-4s from Bushehr, Tehran and Hamedan, attacked a number of Iraqi air bases and military installations with almost total impunity.
These first days of the war saw other air strikes against such targets as the military installations of the Um-Al-Quasar. On one such mission a two-ship formation of F-4Es, each armed with six 750lb (340kg) GP bombs, attacked Iraqi port installations and anchored missile boats. Some 20 minutes later, an RF-4E took reconnaissance photos of the aftermath, which showed that heavy damage had been inflicted on ships and harbor installations.

Invasion of Iran 1980-Iranian PhantomsTayyara! Tayyara! (Arabic: Airplane! Airplane!). Iraqi crew of a BMP armored personnel carrier advancing in Iran in 1980 (at left) abandon their vehicle in haste at the sound of the roaring engines of two US-made Iranian F-4E Phantoms. Iranian Phantoms (at right) were also reported to be flying just meters above ground level to fire their 20mm cannon at Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles (Picture Source at left:; Picture Source at right: Farzad Bishop, Combat Aircraft 37, reproduced with permission in Iran at War: 1500-1988, 2011).

The general tactic for during such missions was to approach the target from different directions and then execute a pop-up and dive attack. On the return flight, one of the Phantoms was hit by a SAM missile on the right wing, damaging some of its systems and control surfaces; despite this, the aircraft was still flyable. However, the fuel indicators did not work and the right wing caught fire. The runways of the nearest base were still damaged from the first day’s bombing, so the crippled Phantom had to land on the unaffected part at a higher than normal speed. The tires burst and the aircraft ran off the end of the runway, after the crew had already ejected. Later, the aircraft’s wing was replaced, the first time such work had been undertaken in Iran, and it was returned to combat service.

F4E_Iran-Low Level flightUndated photo of an Iranian Phantom II flying at very low level (Source: Persiangig).

The first months of the war saw the Iranian Air Force making concentrated efforts to halt the Iraqi ground advance, often directly engaging tank and vehicle columns, sometimes at altitudes as low as 10-13f. (3-4m). Iraqi MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters were used as top cover to protect their military columns heading toward Iran, and as a result there were many air-to-air encounters – with mixed results.

Attack on Habbaniyeh Airfield

A month after the Iraqi invasion, two F-4D Phantoms were sent to attack the important air base of Habbaniyeh, 70 miles (112km) west of Baghdad. The flight was equipped with ECM pods and supported by F-14 Tomcats at the border, with an RF-4E on stand-by. Aerial refueling was carried out at 13,000ft (3,960m) and the Phantoms then crossed the border to their target. One aircraft was shot down by a SAM over Baghdad and its crew taken prisoner. The second Phantom was able to evade an SA-6 missile by making an 11g turn, the missile passing across the aircraft’s tail and wing. The crew realized that it was impossible to continue the attack and resorted to a pre-determined secondary target, the Al-Bakr oil refinery.

Babaie-Phantom-IranAn F-4E lands after the conclusion of a successful mission during the Iran-Iraq war (date unknown). At the back-seat is war hero Lieutenant-General Abbas Babaie, who was deputy-commander of the Iranian air force at the time. Babaie also flew combat missions before being reportedly killed by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire (Picture Source: 2000, Air Forces Monthly Special: Classic Aircraft Series Number 1, “Combat over Iraq”).

On the return leg, two Iraqi MiG-23s intercepted the F-4 and fired air-to-air missiles; the Phantom, flying at very low altitude, jettisoned its drop tanks and made evasive maneuvers. The MiGs finally broke off the pursuit, by this time the Phantom was very low on fuel and the crew declared an emergency, preparing to eject. Having no other alternative, the supporting stand-by Boeing 707 tanker crossed the border into Iraq to provide much-needed fuel for the starving F-4, which by that time had only 700lb. left.

During the early months of the war, the number of Iranian aircraft being shot down by Iraqi air defenses was relatively low, mainly because the operators were so inexperienced. However, this rate increased as the conflict progressed and newer systems were introduced. The flat topography of Southern Iraq meant that intruding Iranian aircraft were detected soon after entering the country. Deployment of newly-purchased low-altitude Cortile and Roland SAMs in and around Nasseriyeh AB and other military significant sites, including the strategic city of Baghubeh near Baghdad, during 1986-87, increased the capabilities of the Iraqi defenses.

Refueling a PhantomFill her Up! This F-4 Phantom is being refueled by a Boeing 707 aerial tanker during the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian jets often refueled before going into combat missions inside Iraq. This particular Phantom is equipped with six Mk-82 bombs (equipped with Snakeye retarding fins). These allowed the Phantoms to attack ground targets at low-level  and high-speed (Picture Source: Bishop & Cooper, 2003, color picture 5).

The most impenetrable air defense network in Iraq was undeniably to be found protecting Baghdad. The city was surrounded by overlapping belts of SA-2/-3/-6/-8, Roland and Cortile SAMs, radar-guided AAA and MiG-21/-23 and -25 air defense fighter interceptors.

On March 19, 1982, a high-altitude strike formation of Phantoms was bounced and engaged by an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat from a distance of 60 miles (97km), and was also simultaneously illuminated by air defense radars. A number of SA-2 ‘telegraph poles’ were seen passing through the formation, but all exploded at higher altitude, having been decoyed by the Phantom ECM pods. However, one F-4 was hit by an AAM fired from the Foxbat, shattering its canopy, causing the right engine to shut down, and badly damaging the fuselage. Nevertheless, the pilot managed to land his aircraft safely.

Liberation of Khuzestan in march 1982Elements of the Iraqi 12th Armored Division assemble at Fakkeh (in the Dezful area) on March 23rd 1982 to rescue remnants of the Iraqi 4th Army Corps crushed by a powerful Iranian offensive (Photo source: Steven J. Zaloga, Modern Soviet Combat Tanks, Osprey Vanguard  37, p.32).  As these units deployed to attack, they were bombed and strafed by up to 95 Iranian F-4 and F-5 combat aircraft.  The Iraqi 12th Armored Division was virtually eliminated. The right photo is of Iranian regular army troops atop an overturned Iraqi tank of the 12th armored division (Photo source: Note that the vehicle has been blown upside down as a result of aerial bombardment by Iranian F-4 and F-5 combat aircraft.

The Iraqis also practiced a tactic of setting up ambushes inside Iran at the border areas and pulling Iranian aircraft into the Iraqi airspace. Then Iraqi Mirage F1 or MiG-25 fighters equipped with long-range missiles would intercept them. Some Iranian F-4s were shot down using this tactic, particularly over the northern Persian Gulf. Iranian Phantoms and F-14A Tomcats also used to take advantage of such co-operative tactics; F-4s acting as the prey and F-14s as the hunters. This is contrary to previous reports in Western publications, where it had been suggested that Tomcats acted as prey for hunter Phantoms.
As for another important mission late in the war, during Operation Valfajr-10, Iranian F-4 Phantoms attacked and bombed Baghdad’s Tamuz nuclear reactors for a second time.


Iranian Air Force used various weapons options in conjunction with its F-4 Phantom operations. They included general purpose bombs; such as 500lb. Snakeye (x12) to 750lb. (x6) and 1,000lb. (x6) GP or retard versions. AIM-7E Sparrow and AIM-9P/J Sidewinder missiles were also carried regularly for air defense and fighter escort missions. Other weapons included the AGM-65A Maverick used in conjunction with TISEO electro-optical sensor, BL 755 cluster bomb customized for low-altitude delivery, Napalm tanks and LAU-61 rocket launchers. Iranian F-4Ds also used the SUU-23 gun pods to good effect.

Iranian Phantom bombing Iraqi positionsAn excellent gun camera view of an F-4 Phantom attack on a rear Iraqi supply unit on May 15, 1984. The Phantom is flying very low as seen by its shadow; note explosions in background. Iran often launched successful attacks with its aircraft, but these were far too few to offset Iraq’s growing military strength on the ground and in the air (Picture Source: Farzin Nadimi, Air Forces Monthly, Classic Aircraft Series no.1, The Phantom, 2000, p.79).

Two Iranian F-4D Phantoms were tasked with striking a logistically important bridge near Basreh on September 29, 1981, employing LGBs. They used a buddy-lasing tactic, one acting as target designator at about 13,000ft equipped with AVQ-9 Pave Light laser designator. The target was hit, but a short time later an SA-6 missile homed in on the designating aircraft. Both crew ejected as the aircraft was destroyed.

Escaping US Missiles

According to Iranian records, in early spring 1988 – it actually happened during the so called “Battle of the Frigates” on 18 April, 1988, an Iranian F-4E Phantom from 9th Tactical Fighter Base, Bandar-Abbas, armed with air-to-air missiles, was tasked with escorting a number of other Iranian Phantoms undertaking an unspecified strike mission within the Persian Gulf. That day, US forces in the area were also active and their warships warned off the low-flying Iranian strike package several times.
The escort Phantom was scanning the area for any hostile activity, as the other F-4s attacked their targets one after the other and then left the area. Shortly after the last attacking aircraft returned, the escort fighter’s RWR/RHAW indicated a missile lock. Moments later, a reportedly Standard Missile SM- 2ER radar guided surface-to-air missile, said to be launched from USS Wainwright, operating in the area near the Straight of Hormuz was seen coming towards the Phantom.

Phantom II-Iran Air Force-PGPost-war photo of a trio of Iranian Phantoms on patrol over the Persian Gulf (Source: Business Insider).

To break the radar lock, the Phantom jinked hard with maximum power, pulling a +12g turn. The missile exploded nearby, spraying the airframe with shrapnel, severing hydraulic lines and damaging the left engine. The aircraft headed towards the nearest auxiliary airstrip, but on the way it again came under attack from behind. The Phantom tried hard to break the radar lock by flying low and taking evasive action. Moment later, near the airstrip, another missile passed the right side of the F-4, hitting the water and exploding. The aircraft managed to evade this and landed on the runway. Since the airstrip lacked a barrier facility, the pilot decided to get airborne again – despite the threat from the unseen missile shooter – and headed towards the main base.
Despite partial hydraulic failure, engine problems and severe damage to the wing and fuselage, the Phantom remained controllable and finally landed in Bandar Abbas. This particular aircraft was rebuilt and returned to service after 6,000 man-hours and two and half months of work.

Phantom had been undeniably the backbone of the Iranian Air Force during the country’s eight year war with Iraq. A role that it still is fulfilling to the best of Iranian Air Force’s technical ability.

Main F-4 Operating Bases during the Iran-Iraq War

1st Fighter Base, Mehrabad, Tehran. Generating fighter and escort missions inside the border along western and south-western Iraq. It also operated as the main hub for tanker operations and aerial reconnaissance missions into Iraq and over battle fronts.

3rd Fighter Base, Hamedan (Shahrokhi, later Nojeh). Home to 31st and 32nd Fighter Wings. This base was in charge of aerial support of the western front Flying time from this base to Baghdad was 30 minutes. Due to its high sortie generation rate, Nojeh came under constant enemy bombing.

4th Fighter Base, Dezful (Vahdati) (mostly F-5). Because of its proximity to the Iraqi border, this base was constantly under artillery attacks and bombing.

6th Fighter Base, Bushehr. This base was mainly tasked with attacks on shipping in the northern and central parts of the Persian Gulf, escort and support of Iranian naval operations, and strike missions against Iraqi ports and naval vessels.

9th Fighter Base, Bandar Abbas. Mainly in charge of attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf, aircraft from this base monitored foreign military activities in and around the Strait of Hormuz, and provided escort and support of Iranian naval assets.
10th Fighter Base, Chabahar. This particular air base was in charge of monitoring the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

Iran Phantom supportng Kurds-2014The Old Warhorse in action in late 2014: the venerable Phantom attacking ISIS positions in support of the Kurds; this photo is from a film report by the Al-Jazeera network (Source: Al-Jazeera, December 2, 2014).