During the late ’70s Iran ordered 160 F-16As. However, with the fall of the Shah in 1979, the order was cancelled and those aircraft were never delivered, although some tooling and maintenance equipment reportedly arrived in country in readiness for deliveries.
Still, there are some (mainly Iranians who reportedly saw them) who argue two airframes did make their way to Iran. According to what it has been written on some aviation forums across the world, the two F-16s that were delivered before the procurement was cancelled, were based at Mehrabad Air Base near Tehran.
According to such accounts, one “Fighting Falcon” is still operational whereas the other was disassembled for reverse engineering and then sent to Pakistan. The jet sent to Pakistan was itself looked at by the Pakistani military with the idea of reverse engineering it, although Pakistan had bought the F-16 itself.
Some say that in return for the airframe Pakistan provided Iran with nuclear technology, although, this is just one of the many speculations that surround the story.
Anyway, the Spanish newspaper ABC has recently reported that at least one F-16 of the 23 purchased by Venezuela in 1983, was transferred to Iran by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Military cooperation between Chavez and Ahmadinejad was recently proved by the use of some Iranian Mohajer 2 drones, operating in Venezuela under the name of Sant Arpia.
According to the information gathered by ABC, the F-16 for Tehran have been disassembled and packed into several sealed and unmarked wooden crates which were then loaded onto a Venezuelan Boeing 707.
The 707 took off from El Liberator Air Base and stopped in Brazil, Algeria before landing in Tehran.
The airframe would have been brought back to flying condition in Iran to test it against the local air defense systems in anticipation of an Israeli or U.S. attack on the Iranian nuke program.
After a visit (to Tehran) in 2009 by the director of Venezuelan military, minutes that were signed after a high level meeting are thought to have implied that Venezuela promised to speed up further transfers of further jets, therefore there could be more than three airframes in Iran.
A quick google search for the above shows that various forums are awash with this after ABC and later Haaretz as well as several other media outlets ran reports back in June that seem to back this up.
It remains to be seen if proof is forthcoming.
Still, even if Venezuela really gave Tehran one of its jets, the airframe was already rather dated in 2006, and it would be of very little use to calibrate anti-aircraft radar systems against the most modern threats: for instance the Israeli Air Force, among the others, uses F-16I Sufa (Block 52) jets that are much different in terms of avionics and equipment from Block 15 examples.
Hence, not only there is no evidence any F-16 is currently in Iran, nor it would be of any real interest for the Iranian military.
Noteworthy, among the various images allegedly showing F-16 in Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force color scheme that can be found online, the one below is one of the most interesting. It seems to show Iranian (?) officers inspecting a (dual seater) F-16 in a hangar. The fact that the photo is in the usual FARS News agency framing makes it a bit more realistic.
However, the aircraft is in the Venezuelan Air Force color scheme and the image seems to have been taken inside one of the soft hangars at El Libertador airbase as shown in this photo on the F16.net website.
Therefore, either the image is a fake (like many others you can find on the Internet, some of those showing scale models) or it was taken by the FARS photographer Vahid Reza Alaei during a visit in Venezuela of an Iranian delegation.
Written with David Cenciotti.
Image credit: FARS News Agency (or fake?)