Did Soviets snare US arms secrets in Iran?
Washington — Soviet agents may have grabbed much top-secret US weaponry in Iran in the chaotic months after the Shah was swept from this throne. When he fled, the Iranian potentate left behind disintegrating military and a vast array of sohpisticated weapons, most of them supplied by the United States.
That the Soviet Union could have resisted appropriating some choice items from this armory is regarded as inconceivable by many defense analysts.
"I think the Russians got everything removable, small," declares Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University here. He believes the haul may even have included an AIM- 54A Phoenix air-to-air missile, one of the most advanced weapons of its type in the world.
In his efforts to make Iran the dominant power in Southwest Asia, the Shah spent lavishly -- some say recklessly -- on British, French, and US weapons. Perhaps his most-publicized purchase was of 80 F-14 Tomcat fighters from the US, along with 484 Phoenix missiles. But he also bought large quantities of tanks from Great Britain.
Among the numerous smaller items he acquired were missiles, including Sidewinders and Sparrows for his F-14 squadrons, air-to-surface Mavericks, surface-to-surface Harpoons, antitank TOWs, and surface-to-air HAWKs, said to be the most reliable anticraft weapon in existence.
"The Iranians had a lot of desirable hardware," says Professor Luttwak, a consultant to the US Defense Department, observing that Moscow may well have "set up a whole special operation" to obtain weapons it wanted.
It is widely supposed by defense analysts here that Soviet agents were charged with obtaining as much of the Shah's Western-made weaponry as they could lay their hands on.
One knowledgeable source, who asked not to be identified, asserts that the KGB has "always had a big operation" in Iran. "They had 400 people in their mission, of whom at least 200 were KGB," he says. "The chances are relatively high, given the confusion that's gone on, that a Phoenix or perhaps the plans for an F-14 have gone over [to the Soviet Union]. If I were in the Pentagon, I would certainly operate on that assumption." He doubts that the Soviets have managed to acquire an F-14 itself but notes that they "probbably have been able, in one form or another, to make a fairly good haul." He believes Moscow would be particularly interested in the fire-control mechanism of the improved HAWK, 1, 800 of which Iran bought in 1976 for $600 million.
"When things started to fall apart over there, the KGB was waiting in the shadows to grab a lot of this stuff," claims Ryan Emerson, editor of International Intelligence Report. "We know for a fact that the Soviets did lay their hands on a lot of the hardware, not just the manuals." He maintains that they were particularly keen to learn more about F-14's ability to shoot down at extremely small targets.
"They wanted that very badly," he says.
An intelligence expert contacted by the Monitor points out that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is surrounded by members of the Communist Tudeh Party who would probably not have been adverse to helping KGB acquire the weaponry it sought. Observes Gen. Daniel Graham, former head of the Defense Intelligency Agency: "The Soviets have their friends within that revolution and, as an old intelligence agency, I just can't see them missing the opportunity to get their hands of that stuff."
One writer on military affairs the Monitor that a Pentagon official confirmed to him that both manuals for the F-14 and Phoenix missile had found their way into the Soviet Union. "He was absolutely specific about it," the writer said. This same source suggested that there may be a connection between a possible loss of TOW missiles from Iran and a recently reported reorganization of Soviet forces to counter NATO's increased antiarmor capability.
That the Soviet Union pulled off a weapons heist of considerable magnitude or that it acquired manuals for the F- 14 and Phoenix missile is disputed by the Pentagon.
"As far as we know, none of our weapons have been compromised in Iran," declares on analyst, maintaining that the Iranian armed forces had become "paranoid about security" under the Shah and that, since his fall from power, the Tehran government has been particularly distrustful of Moscow. But this analyst concedes that it would be safe to assume that much of what the US sold to the Shah has been compromised.
The Navy would certainly appear to feel that the secrets of the Phoenix are known to the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, told the House appropriations defense subcommittee that "because of the loss of the missile to the Iranians and its possible compromise, we are holding down the production rate of the AIM-54A missile and . . . are moving ahead as rapidly as possible to the AIM-54C."
The latter missile, he declared, would be invulnerable to any countermeasures that the Soviets might have developed against the former. But Admiral Hayward insisted the AIM-54A had not been rendered useless, saying: "Even if the Soviets have the missile in their hands today, it will be several years before they will have a countermeasure in the field."
Unless it is putting a brave face on the situation, the Pentagon appears philosophical about the alleged Soviet arms coup in Iran. Conceding that the Kremlin might, indeed, want to examine the HAWK missile with its battery equipment, the Pentagon analyst claims that the Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles were most probably compromised during the Vietnam war; that the TOW could well have been compromised during the October war of 1973, and that the Maverick's chances of being compromised have been "great for many years." He doubts that Soviet agents managed to spirit away any Harpoon missiles, primarily because, as he claims, "The Iranian Navy was relatively untouched by the revolution."
If Soviet engineers were to try to copy an US materiel grabbed in Iran, he adds, they would find it "a very, very expensive" undertaking.
Even if the Soviets have an F-14 manual in their possession, the Pentagon analyst continues, they would learn no more from it than they could from open sources in this country. Professor Luttwak concurs, adding that the Soviet Union would even be less interested in any F-14 they might get hold of than the US was in the MIG-25 that defecting Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko flew to Japan in 1976. "For us the hardware is much more important, as we can learn nothing from their technical press."
But the Pentagon analyst admits that with an F-14 manual in their hands the Soviets would find it easier to develop countermeasures against the aircraft, which can launch six Phoenix missiles simultaneously at six separate targets more than 100 miles away and track 24 more with its AWG-9 fire-control radar. According to Vice- Adm. Wesley L. McDonald, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare, the F-14 is "the only aircraft in our current inventory capable of successfully engaging the Soviet Backfire bomber."
So why was the F-14 sold to Iran, where it might still fall into Soviet hands with the disintegration of the country? Primarily because the US had long been committed to supporting the Shah in order to maintain a powerful ally in the Gulf region, but also because Iran's order for the aircraft saved its manufacturer, Grumman Aerospace Corporation, from bankruptcy. At the time of the sale, moreover, nobody foresaw that a revolution would propel the Shah from power. Observes professor Luttwak: "It's easier to agree on this principle that very advanced weapons should not be supplied to fragile customers than to enforce this principle when people come waving barrels of cash and -- more to point -- when it's a test of friendship."
And in the words of the Pentagon analyst: "You simply cannot build something to secure [secret] that you cannot use it in combat."