The Carter administration is actively negotiating with the new Khomeini government in Iran to buy back the 78 Navy F14 fighters sold to the deposed shah, government officials acknowledge.
The F14 negotiations are driven by two primary policy considerations on the American side: to keep the highly secret fighter plane from falling into Soviet hands, and to strengthen frayed ties with Iran's new government.
The immediate question is whether the Khomeini government will go along with an American request to inspect the F14s on the ground in Iran to determine their worth.
Brand new, the F14s cost about $25 million each. But the United States, in negotiations to date, has told Iranian officials that it will not pay that much for the used fighters.
The U.S. price has not yet been determined, but if the Iranians refuse to accept what the United States ends up offering, the Carter administration has a fallback position, sources said.
Instead of paying cash for the Irania planes, the alternative plan is to pay for them in aerospace hardware, such as spare parts for Iranian civilian transport planes and for the less sophisticated fleet of F4 fighter-bombers the Khomeini government intends to keep flying.
Administration officials said yesterday that they are encouraged that the Khomeini government is at least considering allowing U.S. Navy inspection teams into Iran to examine the F14s. The barter possibility also is under informal discussion right now, sources said.
Despite the trauma inflicted on much of Iran during the transition from the shah ot Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian air force has managed to continue training, according to U.S. military sources. In fact, these sources said, the Iranian pilots are still flying some of their highly prized F14s.
However, the Khomeini government has told u.s. officials in Iran that it has no intention of retaining the highly sophisticated F144, which requires complicated maintenance.
In advance of agreeing on a selling price, the United States has suggested to Iran that the F14s be put in storage to retard deterioration, and has offered to send a team of specialists to help do this, sources said.
According to the Pentagon, the shah paid the United States $1.28 billion for 80 F14s and $274 million for 250 Phoenix missiles and associated equipment. Each F14 carries six Phoenix-missiles, a highly secret air-to-air weapon. The plane itself also has secret devices that the Pentagon would hate to see the Soviets obtain.
Two of the 80 F14s crashed during training flights in Iran, leaving 78. One of those is currently at the Grumman plant in Bethpage, Long Island, N.Y., for modification, while the remaining 77 are under heavy guard in Iran.
The Khomeini government wants to sell back the missiles as well as the planes, sources said.