Iran Steps Up Arms Purchases To Prop Military

Officials cite need to match regional buildup. PERSIAN GULF ARMS RACE

IRAN has been going on an arms-buying spree over the past few months as part of a five-year plan to "modernize its armed forces."

But Iranian officials interviewed in Tehran last week said their military spending remains much lower than that of other countries in the Persian Gulf region.

In an interview with Iranian Minister of Defense Akbar Torkan just over a year ago, the Tehran daily, Keyhan, said the government intended to spend $10 billion on arms. Last month the CIA confirmed that Iran had already spent $2 billion during the fiscal year ending March 20, 1992.

Although no detailed breakdown of arms purchases is available, Iran's key suppliers are the former Soviet republics, North Korea, China, and Czechoslovakia.

Present arms deals between Russia and Iran stem from an agreement signed in June 1989 between President Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In this document, the USSR announced its readiness "to cooperate with Iran in order to improve its ability to defend itself."

In September 1990, Iran displayed its first two squadrons of MIG-29 Soviet-made combat aircraft. Previously, Iran had only US-made warplanes inherited from the prerevolutionary regime. A few weeks later, the Soviet arms traders exhibited in Tehran MIG-31 and Sukho-27 prototypes. It was never clear whether the Iranians bought any of the planes.

Western diplomats here say Iran also purchased "a number" of T-27 tanks from the Soviet Union and later Russia.

Russian television announced March 28, and Iranian officials later confirmed, that Russia had sold three diesel-powered submarines to the Islamic republic. This contract raised anxiety among Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which fear Iran may use the submarines to blockade the Strait of Hormuz.

Over the past weeks, Iran has also been buying military hardware from Ukraine, including missiles. In return, Ukraine imports Iranian oil and gas.

Western diplomats here also express "grave concern" about the "growing trade between Iran and Czechoslovakia" in light weaponry.

In addition, several recent reports in the Western media have suggested that Iran has bought nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics. Officials from both Iran and the independent republics deny the reports. And the US State Department also says it does not believe these reports are accurate.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly stressed that the Islamic republic is not interested in acquiring or building nuclear weapons. At the end of a week-long visit in February, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency said that, based on their findings, Iran's nuclear activities and capability are entirely for peaceful purposes.

According to a source in the Iranian government, military personnel are disappointed by the poor performance of equipment bought from Russia and Ukraine and would prefer to have access to Western-made weapons.

But Iran is not alone in its arms buildup. At a United Nations-sponsored conference on arms sales in the Middle East in January in Cyprus, Israeli military expert Mattitiyahu Peled asserted that since the Gulf war, Saudi Arabia alone has signed arms contracts totaling $20 billion with United States companies.

Last December, a few days after the freeing of the latest British and American hostages in Lebanon, Britain allowed Iran to reactivate a London-based bureau specializing in the purchase of Western weapons. The British government had ordered its closure in 1987 after Iranian Revolutionary Guards attacked a British tanker in the Gulf.

Western governments, however, officially maintain an arms embargo on Iran. A European ambassador in Tehran explains, "There is an enormous paradox. On the one hand, you have armaments industries in Europe and in the United States going through a recession and, on the other hand, you have a country, Iran, that is desperately willing to buy.

"But the two sides can't deal with one another because there is a political will in the Western world to prevent Iran from rebuilding a powerful army."

Asked why Iran spends so much money on weapons at a time when it badly needs to rebuild an economy crippled by eight years of war with Iraq, an Iranian journalist answered, "We were attacked by Iraq in 1980. All during this conflict we suffered from a shortage of weapons, and the Iraqis enjoyed the staunch support of almost all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Fear of new aggression

"You have to understand our state of mind. We're afraid of new aggression from one of several of our neighbors with the possible backing of the US. And we know that if a new war broke out, we would again stand alone."

"Presently, there is a new arms race going on in the Gulf region: Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are being armed to the teeth by the West and we believe that we have to match this firepower."

Echoing this sentiment, which is widely shared by Iranian leaders, the daily Tehran Times wrote in an editorial March 9, "We will never forget that no international organization made a single objection when the Iraqi Army fired no less than 70 missiles at Tehran. Right to self-defense

"It's our right to prepare the defense of our territorial integrity at a time when the US is selling some of the Gulf countries the most sophisticated weapons."

Iran resumed diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in March 1991, but mistrust persists. Last September, President Rafsanjani accepted an invitation by King Fahd to visit the Saudi kingdom. Four months later, the Saudi leader renewed his invitation.

"But," said a European ambassador in Tehran, "the Iranian president is dragging his feet."

At a press conference April 11, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati tried to reassure the Saudis by saying, "We have no expansionist policies; we have no military ambitions."

But at the same time an editorial in Keyhan March 12 stated, "North Korea sells weapons to Iran. It is not a secret." This article appeared a few hours after a North Korean cargo ship, believed by Western intelligence sources to be carrying Scud C ballistic missiles, safely reached the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, eluding a US Navy search.

Western diplomats here say these are only "the tip of the iceberg of the weapons trade between the Islamic republic and North Korea."

North Korea specializes in duplicating Soviet- and Chinese-designed weapons and has been on the list of Iran's main arms suppliers since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Western intelligence sources say that throughout the conflict North Korea provided Iran with tanks, mortars, antiaircraft machine guns, missiles, and smaller arms.

Chinese arms sales to Iran became a matter of worry to the West in the spring of 1987 when intelligence sources revealed that Iran had deployed Chinese-made ground-to-sea Silkworm missiles at the mouth of the Gulf.

Both the Iranian and the Chinese governments have consistently denied any arms deal between their two countries.

In October 1990, Torkan spent a week in Beijing, where he held several meetings with his Chinese counterpart. Last year the US intelligence community accused China of providing Iran with equipment capable of producing fissile material for developing a nuclear weapon. Both Iran and China deny any deal.

A European commercial attache in Tehran says, "Chinese nuclear technology is of very low quality, and I doubt it can be of any use to the Iranians."

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