The Iranian regime is known to be hostile to the regular Iranian armed forces (Air Force, Army and Navy). The first round of mass purges came right after the Ayatollahs' seizure of power in February 1979. At the time, they mercilessly executed almost all the Shah's armed forces generals and those who were deemed anti-revolutionary. It is believed that upwards of 9000 military service-members were executed between February 1979 and October 1980, while hundreds were let go under bogus circumstances. Among those who were killed, there were dozens of highly trained fighter pilots, technicians and war planners whose absence left Iran almost defense-less against the Iraqi onslaught during the coming 8 year long war.
The second round of mass executions came in 1983-84 when several senior naval and ground forces officers were charged with 'membership in Tudeh (communist party of Iran) party' and summarily executed. Many claim that these men's main crime was protesting the regime's plans to expand the war and seize Iraqi territory. These senior officers believed the war's objective of ejecting Iraq from Iran's territory had been achieved and it was time to settle for peace.
But these mass executions and death squads are the official purges we know about. And the Iranian regime is actually proud of its work in 'cleansing the earth from corrupt individuals'. The notion of 'eradicating the corrupt from the face of the earth is very common in Iran. Being 'corrupt' or 'Mofsed' is also a charge that the regime lays on any one who might be deemed counter-revolutionary or un-islamic.
And then there are purges we do not know about or haven't heard much about. The first of these came in September of 1981. The then commander of the Iranian AF Javad Fakouri along with the Chief of Staff of Iran's armed forces General Fallahi, Defense Minister Namjou (all western oriented senior officers) died in a mysterious crash aboard a C-130 Hercules transport plane, while returning from an inspection tour of the Iranian military gains in the war against Saddam's army. Again, no official cause of the crash was ever released. Through these violent mass executions and lay offs, the new Islamic regime solidified its control over what was dubbed the Shah's "Taghuti" Armed Forces.
Gen. Sattari (a ground radar control officer by training) had become commander of the Iranian AF in 1986 at a time when the air force was under enormous pressure, and lacked any serious capability during the last phase of the war with Iraq. He'd become famous for introducing I-HAWK air defense missile batteries as battlefield mobile air defense systems. Through personal innovation and initiative, he single handedly was responsible for downing dozens of Iraqi aircraft. His connections with the current president of Iran (Hassan Rouhani) who was chief of civil and military defense at the time paid off in 1986, and he was appointed the commander of the air force. Though not known for being pro-Shah or remotely western, he had an independent streak that led him to be distrusted by the regime. He had grand plans to modernize the battered air force and pushed to purchase new aircraft (MiG-29s, Sukhoi-24, F-7 Chengdu… etc) and wished to strengthen the weakened air arm under his command. He retained many of the US trained pilots and technicians. He fought tooth and nail to have many of the western trained personnel be returned to active duty since their expertise were needed to maintain the western aircraft.
Those plans were not favored by a regime that regards the regular army as 'Taghuti' and relies on the 'Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)' to protect the Islamic revolution. Not to mention using the IRGC as a check against the regular military. (IRGC has seized or established grounds/bases near every major regular military base in Iran).
Once those senior commanders (read obstacles) were killed, the regime went into one of its mass purges again. Dismissal rates increased, dissident personnel were thrown in jail, any one who voiced his concern against rampant corruption was jailed, cronyism grew larger as the new commander of the IRIAF Gen. Baghae'e (known as 'Choopan' or herder, for his love of goats, cows and sheep) turned the air force bases around the country into herding grounds, and started using the air force's conscript soldiers as slave laborers in the regime's oil and gas projects through out the country. He basically did what he was told to do: keep an important branch of the regular military weak and incompetent. At the time of the 'JetStarII crash' in Isfahan in January of 1995, many within the air force community believed the cause of the incident was 'a package' given to a crew member as a gift. Did the 'gift' explode mid-air causing the loss of cabin pressure and subsequent loss of life and aircraft in the process? No one knows. But the history of military purges in Iran tells me that the regime did not want General Sattari and co to run the regular air force.
What better way to dismiss these men in a mysterious mid-air crash than to risk upsetting 1/3rd of Iran's mostly pro-western US trained regular military?
Gen. Sattari (red box) inspecting "Bushehr's 6th tactical fighter base" in southern Iran in early 1990s.
Here, Sattari seen climbing out of a Chinese made 'F-7M Chengdu' training aircraft. Since he was not a pilot by trade, he took it upon himself to learn how to fly different airplanes as the commander of Iran's air force. The tradition dictates that the commander of the IRIAF to be a fighter pilot.
In February 19th, 2003 hundreds of military personnel (this time mostly IRGC officers) died in what was the largest aircraft crash in Iran's history. The cause of the crash remains unclear. Many have suggested that the regime loaded the plane with dissatisfied IRGC personnel and then blew it up. But who knows?! A tyranny is capable of anything.