Iran has 270 deadly Phoenix air-to-air missiles, but no one has felt the sting of them. That is because a gutsy American Navy captain slipped into Iranian air bases in 1979 and disabled the missiles while the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was seizing power.

The Iranians have had custody of the missiles since 1979 when Shan Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was still in power. A Phoenix can shoot down a speeding jet 100 miles away. But not one of the $670,000 milliles has been used by the Iranians against Iraq, even though Iraqi air strikes against Iran have been devastating. And not one Phoenix has been used against U.S. aircraft flying escort patrol in the Persian Gulf.

The Navy captain who disabled the missiles wants to remain anonymous, primarily to protect the Iranians who helped him. But the story of his mission now can be told.

The U.S. retreat from Iran was frenzied. By the end of 1978, our defense contractors in Iran knew the shah's position was shaky. While Jimmy Carter toasted the shah's stability, the Grumman Corp. was quickly evacuating its people from Iran.

Khoemeini's triumphant arrival shortly afterward gave U.S. military officials the shivers. They realized this fanaticalShilite leader had inherited sophisticated American military equipment.

The shah had purchased 80 F14s, of which 79 were delivered. Two crashed before he was overthrown, leaving 77. According to secret documents we have seen, the shah also had ordered 420 Phoenix missiles worth $282 million to be mounted on the F14s. The shah placed his order in 1976, and 270 missiles had been delivered by the time his regime collapsed.

Mounted on an F14, the Phoenix can track up to 50 targets within 150 miles of the plane. It can even assess the threats against the plane and launch missiles by priority. The F14s can hold up to six Phoenix missiles and launch them all simultaneously if necessary.

The U.S. military in Iran swung into action in 1979 with several covert operations aimed at destroying the F14s and their missiles. Only one operation was carried out, and it succeeded because of the initiative of the Navy captain.

The captain's plan was simple -- sneak into the air bases where the missiles were stored and remove a critical widget from the fire control system of each F14 Phoenix missile system. He did it, with the help of anti-Khomeini Iranians, after most other Americans had been evacuated.

The job took longer than he had planned, and the Navy worried for weeks that the captain had been caudht and executed. But he managed to slip out of the country over land through Baluchistan into Pakistan, according to our sources.

This should explain the mystery to European and other military analysts who have wondered why the Iranians have never used their Phoenix arsenal.

The ayatollah still has the F14s, but fewer than a dozen have been operable at any one time during the war with Iraq. Many of the Iranians who knew how to fly and fix them fled when Khoemini took power. Spare parts are hard to come by. Even when the F14s are in the air, they are used mainly as radar platforms instead of missile launchers.