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Iran on Military Renewal: Keeping Up With the Gulf

Amid Western concerns about Tehran's arms purchases, Iran argues that its long war with Iraq and Western sales to Persian Gulf states justify the effort

By Claude van EnglandSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1993



TEHRAN

AS Western countries warn of a troublesome military buildup in Iran, politicians here point to a new arms race in the Persian Gulf that they say justifies a reasonable effort to defend themselves.

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Following two devastating wars in the region - the eight-year Iran-Iraq war initiated by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran and the 1991 Gulf war in which a US-led coalition turned back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - Iranians say another threat is posed to them by huge arms sales to Arab Gulf states from the United States, Britain, and France.

"All along the '80s the international community armed Iraq to the teeth, which led to the invasion of Kuwait," argues Mohammad Hassan Mohazeb, managing editor of the Tehran morning daily Abrar, which supports the government of President Hashemi Rafsanjani and has run editorials defending Iran's determination to rebuild its military. "After the 1991 Gulf war most Western leaders pledged to reduce arms sales in a series of sensitive areas of the world, including the Middle East.

"But the US military-industrial complex successfully pressured the Bush administration to allow huge arms sales to several countries of the Arabian peninsula," he adds, reflecting a view held by many Iranians, particularly those in power. According to the Arms Control Association (ACA), an independent watchdog agency in Washington, the US has announced $32.3 billion in new arms transfers to eight Arab Gulf countries since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Rearming after the war

In June 1989, 10 months after Iran and Iraq signed a cease-fire ending eight years of war, Mr. Rafsanjani and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a document in which Moscow agreed "to cooperate with Iran in order to improve its ability to defend itself."

Since then, Iran has purchased MIG-29 fighter aircraft, T-72 tanks, and, more recently, submarines from Moscow. Western intelligence sources say a North Korean ship carrying Scud C ballistic missiles reached the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in March 1992, eluding a US Navy search. China has sold ground-to-sea Silkworm missiles to Iran.

Furthermore, Iran is developing its own military industry. At a recent armament show in the United Arab Emirates, the Islamic Republic displayed Iranian-made short-range ground-to-ground, air-to-ground, and anti-tank missiles.

Western intelligence sources estimate Iranian military spending at $2 billion per year, a figure Iran's minister of defense, Gen. Akbar Torkan, confirmed in March 1990 in an interview with the Tehran daily Kayhan.

But Iranian officials and Western commercial attaches say poor economic conditions, including a currency shortage, may now force Tehran to trim military expenditures. Indeed, Rafsanjani told a press conference in January that Iran's military spending in the fiscal year starting March 21, 1993, would total only $850 million.

In a show of concern about Iran's military buildup, the Bush administration launched a diplomatic campaign last November to stop Western nations and others from selling technology to Iran that could be used for military purposes. European Community leaders followed in December with a joint statement expressing "concern" about Iran's military buildup.

Mr. Mohazeb, the editor, says this view fails to acknowledge the long list of multimillion-dollar sales of heavy weaponry by the US, France, and Britain to Gulf countries. He claims that according to Iran's intelligence sources Saudi Arabia spent $25 billion in weapons purchases between the end of the Gulf war and last November. In one sale last September, he adds, the Saudi Kingdom bought 72 US-made F-15 jets worth $9 billion.