Imperial Iranian Air Force was the largest operator of the RF-4E after Germany. A total of 32 examples were ordered by IIAF. The first RF-4E destined for Iran rolled off the production line at McDonnell in St Louis Mo. in the late fall of 1970. The first RF-4Es arrived in Iran in 1971. Fifteen more RF-4Es were delivered in succeeding years. However by 1979 only 16 has been delivered. At the start of the war, the Iranian Air Force had 15 RF-4E unarmed Photo Phantoms based at the 1st Tactical Fighter Base in Mehrabad, Tehran. One had been lost before the war, having been shot down by a rebel MANPADS over the coastal waters of South Yemen in 1977, only pilot survived and later returned back to Iran via Saudi Arabia. The downed RF4-E is still visible from the air laying in shallow waters of Yemen to this day. Reconnaissance aircraft, specially RF-4Es, were considered to be high-value assets, and were in short supply. Therefore, the Iraqi air defenses went to a great deal of effort to shoot down these recon aircraft.
One RF-4E, call sign Arash 11, took off at noon on January 27, 1983, from Mehrabad, accompanied by two F-14A Tomcats as top cover and a KC-707 tanker. These missions were mostly performed at low or medium altitude. The recon Phantom would use its RWR and ECM systems to determine the safest entry route, orbiting at 50,000ft until conditions were right and then descending to 2,00ft and accelerating to Mach 1.6 for the actual photo run. On this particular day, the RWR was lit up from all directions as the RF-4 went towards its target, the main threat showing as an Iraqi Mirage F1 in the 11 o’clock position.
The Phantom ECM equipment was not programmed to counter Western-designed weapon systems and the aircraft was hit by two Matra Magic AAMs. Several other missiles were fired at the RF-4E, passing close by and exploding in mid-air. At this time, four ‘bogeys’ were closing on the Phantom from head-on and another from its 9 o’clock. Moments later, the back-seater noted a Matra Super 530 semi-active radar-guided AAM, painted in checkered white and orange – it is possible that the French had hastily delivered their development rounds to Iraq to get them in use against Iranian aircraft. The missile hit the Phantom in the cockpit area, killing the pilot and forcing the injured RIO back-seater to eject at 48,000ft (14,630m) while in supersonic speed. He evaded being captured and finally found his way to Iran the next day.
The APQ-120 radar in the Iranian F-4E Phantoms was partially inoperable because the arms embargo had restricted the supply of spare parts – consequently the Sparrow missile could not be fired at most of the times. In addition, Iraqi aircraft ECM equipment was generally effective in breaking Iranian F-4 radar locks.
The effects of the arms embargo and the shortage of spare parts reduced the number of Phantoms available for combat. However, the Air Force and Iran Aircraft Industries (IACI) personnel did an incredible job of maintaining and overhauling every flyable aircraft – and rebuilding badly damaged fighters.
It was repeatedly reported that Israel secretly delivered Phantom spare parts to Iran, presumably thinking that by doing this it would help to keep Iraq occupied. There were reports that Israel supplied critical spare parts for the Phantom’s APQ-120 radar, which made it possible to fire the Sparrow semi-active radar-homing missile.