Key point: Iranian companies have struggled to produce all the specialized parts that the Tomcat requires.
Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region in the aftermath of U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision unilaterally to withdraw the United States from the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. military has implicated Iranian agents in several summer 2019 attacks on civilian ships sailing near Iran. The U.S. Navy sent the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and her strike group to the region. The U.S. Air Force deployed B-52 bombers and F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
If war breaks out, American forces likely will attempt to secure Gulf air space by destroying or suppressing Iran’s air forces. The regular Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force and the air wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps militia together operate around 700 aircraft.
The IRIAF’s 1970s-vintage F-14s could be U.S. forces’ first targets. According to a survey by Flight Global, the Iranian air force in 2019 operates around 24 F-14 Tomcats from a batch of 79 of the Grumman-made, swing-wing fighters that Iran acquired in the mid-1970s before the Islamic revolution.
The U.S. Navy retired its last Tomcat in 2006. But with its long range and powerful radar, the F-14 remains one of the world’s most capable fighters. For that reason, the Americans for many years have been trying to ground the Ayatollah’s F-14s.
Sixty-eight of Iran’s F-14s survived the Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988. Sanctions that the United States imposed after the 1979 revolution prevented Iran from openly acquiring spare parts for the heavyweight fighters.
Tehran established self-sufficiency programs—not just in the air force, but across the nation’s economy—in an effort to satisfy material needs that foreign companies had once met.
In many sectors, the self-sufficiency initiative worked. Besides producing all its own oil, Iran has declared itself autonomous in agriculture, steel production, electricity generation and civil aviation.
But Iranian companies struggled to produce all the specialized parts that the Tomcat requires. Tehran turned to the black market, paying huge sums to shady middlemen to sneak F-14 parts into Iran.
American authorities became aware of the illicit trade as early as 1998. In March that year, federal agents arrested Iranian-born Parviz Lavi at his home in Long Island, charging him with violating U.S. export law by attempting to buy up spare parts for the F-14’s TF-30 engine and ship them to Iran via The Netherlands. Lavi got five years in prison plus a $125,000 fine.
More arrests followed. In 1998, an aircraft parts vendor in San Diego told U.S. customs officials that Multicore Ltd. in California had requested price information for air intake seals used only on the F-14. Agents arrested Multicore’s Saeed Homayouni, a naturalized Canadian from Iran, and Yew Leng Fung, a Malaysian citizen.
“Bank records subpoenaed by the Customs Service showed that Multicore Ltd. had made 399 payments totaling $2.26 million to military parts brokers since 1995 and had received deposits of $2.21 million,” The Washington Post reported. The company shipped parts mostly through Singapore.
The feds began investigating 18 companies that had supplied airplane components to Multicore.
In September 2003, U.S. authorities nabbed Iranian Serzhik Avasappian in a South Florida hotel as part of a sting operation. Agents had showed Avasappian several F-14 parts worth $800,000 and arrested him after he offered to buy the components.
“While these components may appear relatively innocuous to the untrained eye, they are tightly controlled for good reason,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement interim agent Jesus Torres said in a statement. “In the wrong hands, they pose a potential threat to Americans at home and abroad.”
Even with U.S. authorities tamping down on the illicit trade in F-14 parts, Iran persisted. After shutting down Multicore, the feds confiscated the firm’s Tomcat components and sent them to the Defense Department’s surplus-parts office. In 2005, a company—allegedly Iranian—bought the very same parts from the military.
The parts war escalated after the U.S. Navy retired its last F-14s in 2006, leaving Iran as the type’s only operator. In 2007, U.S. agents even seized four intact ex-U.S. Navy F-14s in California—three at museums and one belonging to a producer on the military-themed T.V. show JAG—charging that the F-14s had not been properly stripped of useful parts that could wind up in Iranian hands.
The U.S. Congress was furious at the Pentagon for its lax handling of the F-14-parts problem. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, described it as “a huge breakdown, an absolute, huge breakdown.” Lawmakers passed a bill specifically banning any trade in Tomcat components to Iran or any other entity, and then-president George W. Bush signed the law in 2008.
A minor tragedy unfolded as the military paid contractors to dismantle, crush and shred many of the approximately 150 retired F-14s. Scores of old F-14s—properly “demilitarized”—are still on display in museums across the United States. But none remain at the famous airplane “boneyard” in Arizona, where the Pentagon stores retired planes just in case it needs them again.
Even so, the underground trade in Tomcat parts continues, with shady companies scouring the planet for leftover components. In early 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigated Israeli arms dealers that it said had twice tried to send F-14 spares to Iran.
And in late 2016, an aviation expert from Dallas named Erik Johnston, a representative of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum and a Union Pacific railroad worker discovered the hulks of two old F-14s on private land in Temple, Texas.
According to The Houston Chronicle, the F-14s somehow wound up in Temple in the late 1980s after the government paid a contractor to scrap the two jets.
It was a suspicious find. Johnston said he was shocked the F-14s for so long escaped the U.S. government’s notice, especially considering Iran’s strong interest in the type. "The thing that kept stumping us — was why the F-14s were there," Johnston mused.