The first of up to three Russian submarines sold to Iran, despite United States protests, set sail for the Gulf this week, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television said yesterday.

The Iranian Navy has bought the diesel-powered Kilo submarines, which senior Pentagon officials fear could threaten the stability of vital oil export routes through the Persian Gulf. The deal is one of a number of Russian arms sales to Iran that Washington officials have tried to discourage.

The BBC showed what it said were secretly filmed pictures of one of the submarines at a Russian naval base in Latvia, where Iranian crews were thought to have been training for the past year.

The New York Times yesterday quoted Pentagon officials as saying that with the purchase of two or three of the submarines, Iran would become the first nation in the Gulf with the craft.

The submarines cost about $250 million each. Russian officials said the deal was made before the breakup of the Soviet Union and they were obliged to fulfill its terms.

Iran, said by Western analysts to be building up its military strength, displayed newly-acquired Russian-made Sukhoi-24 attack planes and Chinese F-7 fighter jets at a military parade Tuesday.

Iran's Air Force has retained a large number of Iraqi aircraft which fled there during the Gulf war.

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