Iran Wanted the Soviet MiG-29 as its Next Primary Fighter: This is How America Stopped It

The Iranian Defence Ministry emerged as a promising client for Soviet combat aircraft from 1989, after the death of Iran’s vehemently anti-Soviet Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini brought a new leadership to power that pursued closer ties to Moscow in the face of common Western adversaries. The USSR had made multiple overtures to Iran after the overthrow of the country’s Western-aligned monarchy in 1979, and even temporarily blocked some arms exports to its neighbour Iraq after Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, but had been rebuffed largely due to Khomeini’s hardline position. The Iranian Air Force appeared set to become a leading client for Soviet combat aircraft from the early 1990s, with the service quickly acquiring an estimated 25 MiG-29 medium weight fourth generation fighters and a single squadron of 12 Su-24M strike fighters.

Other prominent acquisitions of aerial warfare systems included 10 units of S-200 surface to air missile systems, which were ordered in 1989 alongside the MiG-29s and revolutionised the country's ground based air defence capabilities. Iran was expected to rely on the MiG-29 to form the backbone of its fleet, with new variants of the fighter scheduled to be marketed for export from the mid-1990s boasting drastically improved capabilities including electronically scanned array radars, access to R-77 active radar guided air to air missiles, access to a range of standoff air to ground weapons, and integration of more powerful engines and larger fuel tanks. Complementing the MiG-29, Iran also showed an interest in acquiring smaller numbers of higher end Soviet combat aircraft - most notably the MiG-31 Foxhound heavyweight interceptor but also possibly the Su-27 Flanker the latter which saw its first ever exports made in 1991. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Iran continued to be a major client for Russian weapons systems, including implementation from 1993 of a 1991 agreement to manufacture T-72 tanks under license domestically, but from 1995  Russia ceased to sign new contracts due to the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement made with the United States under pressure from Washington. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia’s post-Soviet leadership was much more closely aligned with Western interests and was highly susceptible to pressure to support Western efforts to deny potential Western adversaries access to modern armaments. Iran responded by seeking to acquire MiG-29 fighters from elsewhere, and looked to Moldova to acquire a squadron of 25 aircraft that the country had inherited from the Soviet Union but was poorly position to afford the continued operations of. Iran thus made offers to acquire the MiG-29s which would have provided the same number of aircraft as the USSR had itself supplied. The United States intervened to prevent this sale, however, and notably applied pressure to Moldova which was by then firmly in NATO’s sphere of influence while offering to purchase the fighters itself. 

The result of America’s intervention was that the United Staes military would acquire a MiG-29 squadron to train its pilots and simulate the capabilities of adversaries. While Russia itself was phasing the MiG-29 out of frontline service in favour of larger numbers of Su-27s, the fighter was heavily relied on by Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea with the Koreans manufacturing the aircraft under license. The Iranian Air Force has not acquired any fourth generation fighters since the end of the Cold War as a result, although following the expiry of a UN arms embargo in 2020 which had been in place since 2007 there was speculation that the country could acquire modern MiG-29 variants or their derivative the more modern MiG-35. Iran is now seen to be more likely to consider Chinese J-10C fighters, in part due to their far greater scale of production and lower maintenance requirements, but also due to its caution regarding Moscow’s reliability after Russia repeatedly blocked sales and supported Western countries in placing pressure on Tehran.

Moscow's policy choices proved highly detrimental to the interests of both countries, with Russia having large reserves of unassembled MiG-29s when the USSR collapsed and struggling to sustain its defence sector due to a lack of orders - but still alienating its third largest client with arbitrary restrictions. As for the Soviet-built MiG-29s already in Iranian service, they have been modernised domestically and continue to be assigned to defend the capital Tehran reflecting their elite status. Their numbers were also supplemented by fighters which fled from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and were seized by Iran, which brings the fleet size to an estimated 30-35 fighters. The country was expected to operate a fleet of 60-80 MiG-29s by the turn of the century, and possibly many more, depending on the Air Force's satisfaction with new post-Soviet variants and whether or not it invested in MiG-31s or other heavier aircraft. While the MiG-29A had an edge over Western fighters from the same weight range when purchased, however, this ageing variant is today considered out of date and against fighters fielded by potential adversaries such as the UAE’s F-16E or U.S. Navy’s F-18E Super Hornets they are expected to be outmatched. 

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