In 1986, the Iraqis Wrecked Their Own Attempt to Get an Iranian F-14
Lack of communication doomed a complex intelligence effort
Part two of a two-part story. Read part one here.
In September 1986, the Iran-Iraq War – a bloody war of attrition that involved millions of combatants and left deep scars on both sides of the front line – was about to reach its sixth anniversary. The war began when Iraq invaded Iran hoping to secure the control over the Shatt Al Arab waterway and the oil-rich Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran.
Although the Iranian military was still in disorder caused by the revolution that toppled the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, it quickly recovered and offered far stronger resistance than the Iraqis expected. By spring 1982, the Iranians had forced the Iraqis into a strategic retreat and launched a counterinvasion. Tehran unleashed one “final offensive” after another. Operation Val-Fajr 6, which Iran launched in February 1986, nearly broke the back of the Iraqi military.
While on the ground it was the Iranian military that played the dominant role, in the skies the situation was the opposite. Cut off from support and assistance of the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was worn out after years of intensive air combat.
On the contrary, the Iraqi air force — the IrAF — was receiving ever more advanced equipment from France and the former Soviet Union. While perfectly suitable to replace losses and maintain quantitative advantage, none of the aircraft Iraq imported matched the powerful Grumman F-14 Tomcat that Iran operated. Thanks to its AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles, the Tomcat could detect and shot down enemy aircraft long before Iraqi pilots were even aware of its presence.
At top — actually taken during a delivery flight to Iran in late 1976, this photograph – with added Soviet national markings – is often misused as ‘evidence’ of delivery of an Iranian F-14 to the former USSR. Nothing of that kind ever happened. Photo via S.M. Above — a pre-war photograph of two Iranian Tomcats in the process of in-flight refueling. Iranian defector Moradi topped up the fuel tanks of his F-14 in similar fashion during his flight to Iraq. Tom Cooper Collection
In attempt to curb the operations of the Iranian F-14s and find out the secrets of the Tomcat’s avionics and weapons, Iraqi military intelligence developed a plan to convince one of the Iranian pilots to defect with his aircraft to Iraq. IRIAF captain Ahmed Moradi Talebi agreed to defect on Sept. 3, 1986.
Worried that his superiors were suspicious, Moradi decided to defect a day earlier on Friday, Sept. 2.
His flight to Iraq put Iraqi defenses on alert. For security reasons, Iraqi military intelligence kept the information about a possible defection from key officers. As Moradi steered his Tomcat into Iraqi air space, a pair of MiG-23MLs from the IrAF’s No. 63 Squadron scrambled from Bakr air base.
Uncertain about what his pilot was doing, the Iranian radar-intercept officer, Captain Najafi, called Moradi multiple times on the intercom. No reply. At one point, he briefly considered drawing his sidearm and shooting the pilot. Meanwhile, Moradi flew ever deeper into Iraq.
Shortly after taking a smooth right turn that brought him behind the F-14, still around 15 kilometers away, the leader of the Iraqi MiG-23 section lost his radar to a malfunction. He had no choice but to advise his wingman to take over. The young lieutenant acquired a lock-on, but hesitated briefly before firing a single R-24T, infrared homing air-to-air missile.
The hefty weapon failed to score a direct hit, instead exploding below the F-14, setting it on fire. Moradi and Najaf ejected.
Still uncertain about what was going on, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Sadik monitored this intercept with increasing comprehension from the Air Defense Operations Command in Baghdad. “It was too easy. The MiGs quickly caught with the Tomcat and then the radar signal for the latter disappeared. Knowing about what was expected to happen the next day, I suspected that something went wrong.”
A formation of IRIAF F-14s during a parade over Tehran in 1985. Tom Cooper Collection
“Therefore, I inquired with the responsible officer. He described the flight path of the Iranian aircraft, told me this was intercepted and shot down by two MiG-23s,” Sadik added. “I asked him to request pilots to identify their target.”
Seconds later, the two Iraqi MiGs – critically short on fuel after a lengthy pursuit – approached closely enough to identify and report the type of downed aircraft before breaking away. An F-14.
“By that time, Deputy Air Defense and my boss entered the hall too, and ordered me to take a Lockheed JetStar light transport from Al Muthana, fly to Al Kut air base and then with a Mi-8 helicopter to Numanya, collect the downed Iranian crew, and bring them to the headquarters in Baghdad,” Sadik said.
“We reached the crash site about two hours later. It was easy to find. The wreckage was still burning and the smoke was visible for over 50 kilometers. Our helicopter circled once around the crash site and then continued for Numanya. On landing near the municipal building we found a big crowd of civilians surrounding a group of soldiers that held the two Iranian captive. The crowd was furious and chanting anti-Iranian slogans. They did not understand what was going on and thought these came to bomb them. I was seriously concerned they might attack and rip the two Iranians apart.”
“I followed our troops to the municipal building, found the two Iranians in good condition and decided to fly them out, as soon as possible,” Sadik said. “Five minutes later, we were all aboard the Mi-8 and flying in direction of Al Kut, then with JetStar back to Baghdad.”
“This was the first time we have captured an Iranian F-14-crew, and the first time a Tomcat crashed inside Iraq. I chatted with them while inspecting various equipment they wore, and asked Moradi why he defected on Friday, not on Saturday as agreed. He said he was in panic, the opportunity to fly was there and he made use of it. Najafi was astounded. He did not know what was happening. To my surprise I found out that both of their parachutes were manufactured in the USA, in May 1986, as was their rubber dinghy.”
An Iranian Tomcat in flight after the war with Iraq. The effectiveness of the Iranian F-14 fleet prompted the Iraqis to attempt several major intelligence operations, all designed to either get one example for inspection purposes or to curb their operations. Tom Cooper Collection
On arrival in Baghdad, Moradi delivered another surprise – in form of a flight manual for the Iranian F-14. Unknown to the IrAF, this contained a number of obsolete information. Printed in 1976, it claimed that Iranian Tomcats were incompatible with AIM-7 Sparrow missile. This information was valid – even as of 1980. But not as of 1986. The Missile Shops at Esfahan had modified the F-14s to fire AIM-7s in 1981.
“The next day, I returned to the crash site to inspect the wreckage,” Sadik said. “To my great disappointment, the front part of the aircraft was completely destroyed. There was not a single piece of the radar or cockpit to recover. Only the cockpit hood was still intact. The only weapon we could find was the M61A1 Vulcan cannon. It was completely ruined, badly twisted and burned. The two engines were relatively complete, but both were old and of no intelligence value for us. Eventually, we learned nothing from the wreckage, except that some parts of the airframe wore U.S. serial numbers, and others of unidentifiable origin.”
Following extensive debriefing, Moradi left to join his family in Europe. Najafi turned down all Iraqi offers and asked to be treated as a prisoner of war. He returned to Iran in 1990. A heap of wreckage from their Tomcat was later added to the base of a memorial in front of the IrAF headquarters in Baghdad.
Less than a year later on Aug. 10, 1987, Moradi was shot by a sniper while taking a walk with his wife and kid in Switzerland. The authorities never found the culprit.
Thus ended the story of an attempted defection by an Iranian F-14 pilot to Iraq. Launched a day earlier than agreed with the Iraqis, it ended with the Tomcat being shot down by two MiG-23MLs – by mistake. Years of hard work by the Iraqi military intelligence were all in vain, and the Iranian defector then not only provided wrong information about the armament of the IRIAF’s F-14s, but was also killed while in exile.
Even then, and contrary to what might be expected, the Iraqis never shared any pieces of wreckage from that F-14 with the Soviets. Determined to bolster their relations with Washington, they gave the wreckage to American representatives at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. According to a retired Pentagon analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Americans concluded that the downed Tomcat contained spares from the U.S. Navy’s stocks – and also a few that were reverse-manufactured in Iran.