If you saw Top Gun: Maverick at some point during this past week, your hands are probably still shaking from the adrenaline rush, your eyes still full of tears after an ending that made multitudes of American men wish they’d patched things up with their dad before he died. What a movie.
The primary mission in Maverick, aside from the title character’s confrontation with his own mortality, is for a group of impossibly handsome aviators—possessed of a rare combination of precision, technique, and physical fitness—to destroy a secret and illegal uranium enrichment facility in an unnamed country. Only these pilots, under Maverick’s tutelage, could pull this bombing raid off. Perhaps not even them, as Vice Admiral Peevish Jon Hamm so frequently reminds the audience.
The Top Gun films are the Department of Defense’s greatest recruiting tool since the G.I. Bill, so naturally the film doesn’t say whose nuclear program Maverick and his students are ordered to annihilate. To do so would court a diplomatic kerfuffle from which the country would stand to gain nothing.
But like Maverick, Rooster, Hangman, and their buddies, I was given a mission. My editors came to me, the idiot who six months ago wrote a long column about how Russia was no longer the technothriller enemy it used to be, confident that I could identify the anonymous villain in Top Gun: Maverick. Specifically, that I could do so before government agents showed up to whisk me away to parts unknown for undermining the foreign relations of the United States.
Well, mission accomplished. The enemy in Top Gun: Maverick is Iran. And here’s why.
Knowing nothing else about the film, the specifics of the mission briefing make Iran the most likely country. The target is an uncompleted uranium enrichment site, which eliminates Russia, China, and North Korea from the target list, because those countries already have nuclear weapons—thousands of them in Russia’s case. Not to mention the fact that an attack on any of those countries would immediately escalate into a major conflict.
The nuclear facility, Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell) says, is also being developed in violation of a number of treaties; that removes India, Pakistan, and Israel from consideration, as all have developed (or are suspected to have developed) nuclear weapons but are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (The purpose of the NPT, which entered into force in 1970, was to limit nuclear weapon ownership to the five countries that already had them: the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K.)
The events depicted in Maverick wouldn’t be the first time a country used a small group of fighters to blow up a rival’s nuclear program; in 1981, a group of Israeli Air Force F-16s destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, a raid known as Operation Opera. (One of the pilots, Ilan Ramon, later became an astronaut and was killed in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed.) The Maverick mission is similar to that, only multiplied by the Death Star trench run from Star Wars: A New Hope, with some added parental angst thrown in.
But the real giveaway of the location is the composition of the enemy air force: a mix of state-of-the-art stealth fighters and Cold War–era interceptors, including a handful of F-14s. Let’s deal with those one group at a time.
The bogeyman fighter in Maverick is referred to over and over as a “fifth-generation fighter,” which is a term used to describe combat aircraft that meet certain criteria: sustained supersonic flight capability; stealth technology; and so-called “supermaneuverability,” or the ability to vector engine thrust to perform maneuvers beyond what’s possible under normal aerodynamics. These fighters are, as the movie depicts, usually superior to 20th century designs like the F/A-18.
One of the two American fifth-generation fighters, the F-35, is depicted briefly in Maverick, but isn’t chosen to fly the final mission. (As committed as Maverick is to authenticity, the most believable thing about it is that when a world-historically important mission comes up, no one so much as suggests taking the $1.6 trillion stealth fighter that doesn’t work. At least Lockheed Martin got its Skunk Works logo on Maverick’s experimental hypersonic jet.)
The bad-guy airplane in the original Top Gun was the fictional MiG-28, which was in reality an American F-5 fighter with a black paint job. The bad-guy airplane in Maverick is never named, but it’s basically identical in appearance and capability to the top Russian air superiority fighter, the Sukhoi Su-57. The Su-57 has been offered for international sale, so far without any takers, but the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) has purchased Russian-built aircraft in the past, including the MiG-29. It’s not unreasonable to believe Iran could buy the Su-57 sometime in the future.
The IRIAF is somewhat syncretic in composition. Its inventory includes aircraft of Russian, French, British, and even American origin. These have been purchased directly from manufacturers, or captured from Iraq during the first Gulf War, or—crucially for the purposes of Maverick—were holdovers from before the revolution in 1979.
Before the current regime took over, Iran was a monarchy whose leader, the Shah of Iran, enjoyed military support from the United States, including the sale of arms and aircraft. When the shah was overthrown, the IRIAF (formerly called the IIAF) continued—and continues, even in 2022—to fly those American planes. That inventory includes the only 747 converted for use as an aerial tanker, which is cool, if not strictly relevant to the film. But it also includes a few dozen F-14s.
The unnamed enemy country’s stock of old F-14s is shown in a satellite photo in the very first minutes of Maverick, and that alone should’ve been a giveaway. Unlike most other American fighters, including the F/A-18 and F-35, the F-14 never caught on with foreign buyers. In fact, the handful of F-14s flown by the IRIAF are the only examples of the type ever exported overseas. They flew successfully against Iraqi fighters in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and they’re currently the only F-14 units still in action, since the U.S. retired its iconic interceptor in 2006.
It should’ve taken a massive plot contrivance to get Maverick back in the cockpit of the airplane that made him famous, but that contrivance exists in real life. The only realistic way Maverick could get into an airworthy F-14 today would be to crash-land in Iran after bombing a nuclear facility, sneak onto an air base with another pilot—preferably the son of his long-dead best friend—and steal one from the IRIAF. It’d be screenwriting malpractice, frankly, not to take advantage of these real-world circumstances.
There’s always the possibility that Maverick just took inspiration from Iran’s real-world F-14 squadrons without meaning to imply anything. But if that’s the case, how do you explain Maverick’s radio call to the aircraft carrier that he’s coming in without nose landing gear—which we saw damaged on takeoff—or a tailhook, which wasn’t shown? Carrier-based aircraft drag a hook behind them to grab an arresting cable on the carrier flight deck, which stops the plane before it goes off the front of the ship. But Iran’s F-14s were modified for land-based operations, and therefore would find a tailhook to be useless added weight. They’d be the only F-14s out there without a tailhook installed.
Now, the enemy’s aerial inventory isn’t a perfect match for Iran. The crypto-Su-57s carry a dark paint job with a red bird insignia, in contrast to the real-world IRIAF’s lighter colors and red, white, and green roundels. And Iran flies copies of American Cobra helicopter gunships, not the Russian-built Mi-24 that chased a downed Maverick across the snow.
And speaking of snow. Does the site of the actual mission, with its huge conifers, towering viaduct, and mountains mere miles from the sea, look like Iran to you? True, the actual scenery seems more Alpine than Middle Eastern. And nothing would thrill me more than discovering that in the Top Gun universe, Operation Gladio never happened, Italy went Communist in the 1970s, and by the late 2010s was flying MiGs and pursuing a clandestine nuclear program as a rogue state. But that seems unlikely for such an otherwise straightforward film.
True enough, the mountainous terrain doesn’t look like Iran, because it isn’t. It’s California, near Lake Tahoe. But let’s take the geographic question more generally. Where in the world would this mission have to be flown off an aircraft carrier?
If the rogue nuclear power were in mainland Europe, the attack aircraft would’ve taken off from a NATO airstrip, and more likely than not would have been Air Force planes. If the enemy country were North Korea, the planes could’ve taken off from South Korea. If the enemy country were in the Caucasus, the logical place to attack from would be Turkey, where the U.S. Air Force maintains a base. An attack anywhere on the Arabian peninsula would’ve been most convenient to stage from one of the air bases in Saudi Arabia.
Iran, however, is most closely accessible by sea, from the Persian Gulf. And while 30 years of CNN and war movies have painted a picture of the Middle East that’s flat, hot, and sandy, Iran has numerous snow-topped mountains that could resemble the scenario Maverick depicted. There are few places in the world where the terrain transitions as abruptly from sea to mountain as what we saw in Maverick, but Iran comes pretty close.
The Khamin Mountain Protected Area, in the Zagros Mountains of southern Iran, looks like something you’d expect to find in Austria or Colorado, and is comparable in elevation. Are the Zagros Mountains right on the edge of the sea, as in the film? No. But take one example: Kuh-e Khami, which is more than 10,000 feet tall and about 50 miles as the crow flies from the Persian Gulf. Maverick’s Death Star trench run mission plan requires his pilots to hug the deck at speeds in excess of 650 knots—call it 750 miles per hour—for two minutes and 30 seconds. You can’t get from the water to Kuh-e Khami in that time frame at that speed, but you can get there in a hair over four minutes. Chalk the other 90 seconds up to Hollywood embellishment.
All the evidence points so clearly to one conclusion that it’s almost hard to trust. But what other country has a history of controversial nuclear experimentation, an air force that flies a mix of Russian- and American-made fighters—including the F-14—and has mountains that a transonic fighter jet can reach from the sea in less than five minutes? Best to take the lesson Rooster learns at the end of the film: Don’t overthink it.