The F-4 Phantom is a two-seat, two-engine, all-weather interceptor and fighter-bomber that served with distinction with the United State in Vietnam.
The F-4’s greatest advantage was its speed—Mach 2.5+ in some circumstances, and it’s thrust. Although not terribly maneuverable, the F-4 could engage and disengage from fights virtually at will by accelerating away from the enemy. The airframe held a number of world records, including top speed, altitude, and climbing records.
Iran maintains a fleet of F-4s, and although it is difficult to pin down a definitive number of the country’s airworthy aircraft, they remain among the most capable in Iranian inventories, though likely hampered by a lack of spare parts and airframes with a high number of flight hours.
Breathing New Life
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Iran and the Iranian Air Force maintain a “wide range of aircraft sourced from the United States, Russia, and China, including the U.S. F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom II, and F-5 Tiger II…IRIAF missions include air intercept, ground-attack, and close air support, and some aircraft are capable of mid-air refueling. The IRIAF’s F-4s serve as Iran’s primary attack aircraft.”
Although Iran’s American-made airframes are vintage-1960s and 1970s tech, with the right missile arrangement, they could still serve a valuable purpose within the Iranian Air Force.
The Defense Intelligence Agency explained how American F-4s — ancient as they are, could still deal a serious blow to adversaries in the region.
“To supplement its long-range strike capabilities, Iran could also attempt to use its regional proxies and limited airstrike capability to attack an adversary’s critical infrastructure. Iran maintains an aging inventory of combat aircraft—such as decades-old U.S. F-4 Phantoms— which it could attempt to use to attack its regional adversaries. However, these older platforms would be more vulnerable to air defenses than modern combat aircraft.”
Attacking regional adversaries is exactly what Tehran chose to do with their American-made F-4s.
There has not been any explicit agreement or coordination between the United States and Iran on the ISIS issue, at least not publicly. Speaking to reporters in 2014, former Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be inappropriate to discuss Iranian involvement in Syrian or to consider any level of cooperation between the United States and Iran, who have a common enemy in ISIS.
Still, the facts spoke for themselves. Footage apparently showed an F-4 fighter jet dumping ordinance on an ISIS target in Syria, spurring a rumor that the United States and Iran were enjoying some level of cooperation.
Agreeing to (Not) Cooperate
Explicit agreements or just coincide? Hard to say. What is sure though is that Iranian F-4s were in Syria, bombing the same enemy as the United States.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.