November 14, 2011:
Iran likes to publicize the fact that its Shahid Babaie Air Base is where all their immortal F-14 jet fighters are based. Iran is the only remaining user of this 1970s era American warplane. The base is also the only training center for fixed-wing pilots. But the biggest accomplishment at this base is a nine year effort to get more F-14s airborne again.
Four years ago it was believed that Iran had restored only about three of its three-decade old F-14A jets to operational status. That in itself was seen as a major accomplishment. But then the United States discovered that it had been played by those clever Iranians.
Over the last four years, at least a ten more F-14As have been restored. Then the U.S. discovered that China had been supplying Iran with Chinese made parts for its U.S. aircraft. But the Chinese also provided parts from retired F-14s that were sold to authorized dealers (who agreed not to export the parts to Iran.) China has also supplied Iran with custom made F-14 components, for parts that were not obtainable from the United States. Finally, China was discreet about all this, until American investigations of Iran's F-14 support program began to bring out more details. This was partly because more Iranians were fleeing their homeland, and bringing more details of secret programs with them. The Chinese support for the Iranian F-14s has been going on for years and was a major factor in Iran announcing its F-14 refurbishment program in 2002. The Iranians also knew that the U.S. had been retiring their F-14s (the last one went in 2006) and that most of these would be sold for scrap.
In 2002 Iran announced that 25, of the 79 F-14As it bought in the 1970s, were still operational. It's long been known that Iran began cannibalizing some of its F-14s, back in the 1980s, to keep others flying. During the 1980s, the F-14s were heavily used in the war with Iraq. In 1985, 25 Iranian F-14s flew over Tehran as part of a celebration. In the last year of the war, 1988, an F-14 shot down an Iraqi jet, one of over 80 knocked down by their F-14s since 1980. That much is known, because there were witnesses and other evidence.
Less well known is that Iran established a smuggling operation to obtain F-14 parts, and manufactured some itself. Russia (and later China) also helped with some custom made parts and refurbishment services. But going into the 1990s, fewer and fewer Iranian F-14s were seen in the air. Whenever an F-14 took off it was big news, and difficult to hide. Word got around, and with hundreds of thousands of Iranians living in exile, the word was passed on. Thus the 2002 claim that 25 Iranian F-14s were operational was not taken seriously. The new claims, that some are flyable, appear to be true. Some F-14s have been seen in the air, but don't expect another major, or even minor, flyover in Tehran. Iran says it is making new weapons for the F-14, without mentioning that the supply of U.S. made missiles ran out over a decade ago. The F-14 also needs new electronics, as parts for those items are much harder to get, than items needed to just get the aircraft into the air. Iran can, at great effort and expense, get a dozen or so F-14s airborne. But once flying, these ancient and jury-rigged aircraft are more target than threat. Nevertheless, the Iranians take a great deal of pride in keeping these elderly fighters flying.