IN a recent column I raised questions about Iran's intentions in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
Now new information has come to hand indicating that with the help of clandestine suppliers, Iran is embarked on a major buildup of armaments that seems to go far beyond any legitimate need for self-defense. United States intelligence sources are observing the arms buildup carefully.
The Iranian regime is reported to have bought weapons from North Korea, Bulgaria, and China last year, as well as from the Soviet Union before it disintegrated. Intelligence agents are sifting reports that some "black market" sales of Russian military equipment have taken place since the Soviet collapse.
The Iranian buildup is also being watched keenly by officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The People's Mojahedin, an Iranian opposition group, claims that the Iranian regime has authorized expenditure of $14.5 billion on weapons purchases and other military expenses this year. According to the group, this compares with $980 million on economic reconstruction. If these figures are correct, the Iranian regime would be spending 15 times more on military purchases than reconstruction.
The Mojahedin operate from bases in Iraq. They claim to have a network of reliable informants inside Iran.
They say that late last year, Iran bought 170 Scud missiles from North Korea and 2,000 SAM (surface-to-air) missile launching pads from Bulgaria. The arms purchases, according to the Mojahedin, include combat aircraft and tanks from various sources. The aircraft are said to be SU 24 bombers and MIG 29s. The tanks are T-72s.
Iran is supposed to have built ballistic missiles with a range of nearly 185 miles with help from China and North Korea and to have tested them.
The Mojahedin also charge that Pakistan and China are cooperating in the Iranian regime's bid to acquire nuclear weapon capacity. According to this opposition group, 20 Iranian nuclear technicians have been sent to Beijing, and "tens of Chinese experts" are presently in Iran. The Mojahedin say the main secret center for nuclear research is in a complex disguised as industrial facilities near Qazvin, northwest of Tehran. They say some research is also being conducted at the nuclear reactor in the city of Isfahan.
These reports of Iran's nuclear ambitions are not dismissed by other foreign intelligence agencies.
The Mojahedin also claim that a new security pact between Iran and Pakistan provides for mutual cooperation in the development of nuclear weapons. The production of weapons systems is to be pursued with Iranian funding, Pakistani technology, and support from China.
Why the military buildup? Ironically, one Iranian target may be the very Russian regime from which some of the weapons were acquired. The Mojahedin claim that since the abortive coup in Moscow last August and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tehran has stepped up its export of fundamentalism to the Soviet Muslim republics and to Arab countries such as Algeria.
Reportedly, Tehran has stepped up its propaganda activities in such Muslim republics as Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Simultaneously it has moved units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from southern Iran to northern border areas.
In addition to its Shiite population, Azerbaijan may be attractive to Iran because of its oil resources and refineries.
Just what course Iran intends to pursue is a puzzle. It remains involved in international terrorism. Its record on human rights within its own borders is deplorable. Some Westerners are tempted to believe that Iran's "helpfulness" in getting hostages released from Lebanon signals a new era of moderation. Many other hard-eyed observers believe the hostages were released not because of any Iranian change of heart, but because they were of no further political use to Iran.
A politically unpredictable Iran, embarked on a multi-billion dollar arms buildup, needs to be very carefully watched.