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.
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.
No official data is available on US arms sales to the Middle East from 1990 to the present, but according to ACA studies of US weapons transfers during that period, Washington authorized the sale of $37 million in arms to Bahrain, $2.17 billion to Egypt, $2.85 billion to Kuwait, and $25.7 billion to Saudi Arabia, among others.
"Iran is spending 1.5 percent of its GNP [gross national product] in defense," Mohazeb says. "Several of our neighbors spend more than 10 percent of their GNP in military purchases. The amount of the deal struck on Jan. 29 by Saudi Arabia and Great Britain for the sale of 48 Tornado fighters is equivalent to our total defense expenditures for two or three years."
British sources confirmed that Saudi Arabia would pay $4.5 billion for the aircraft - more than twice the money Western intelligence sources say Iran spends annually on arms. US increases transfers
"The Iranian buildup is troublesome," says Lee Feinstein, assistant director of research at the ACA, "but it is a drop in the bucket" compared to what other Gulf countries spend on arms. "The best way to handle the Iranian buildup is an agreement among the major arms suppliers. Until now, rather than encouraging restraint by the suppliers, the US has increased arms sales to the region."
Mohazeb urges the Clinton administration to recognize that Iran, as an independent nation, has the right to a military.
"Inaccurate information leaked by US and Israeli intelligence sources that by the year 2000 Iran will be capable of producing a long-range missile and nuclear bombs," he says, "is being perceived by the government here as a signal that the US intends to launch a military strike against Iran before the end of the century." The West has been concerned that the proposed Chinese sale of nuclear reactors could further an Iranian weapons program.
Asked why Iran has spent $450 million buying three Russian submarines, Mohazeb answers: "You seem to forget that we're not only a Persian Gulf power but that we also have a large window on the Indian Ocean. All countries bordering the Indian Ocean have full fledged navies. Why can't we have ours?
"Under the imperial regime [of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] the US had convinced the Iranian Ministry of Defense to buy six US-made submarines. The deal was canceled only days before the downfall of the shah," he says.
Western diplomats in Tehran are reluctant to discuss the details of Iran's military buildup. But a European envoy says that both the US and the European Community have decided to "put the screws on Iran." `One link in the chain'
"A diplomatic campaign is presently being mounted against Iran," the envoy says. Tehran "should understand that this armament question is only one link of the chain of disputes between Iran and the West. Iran's self-proclaimed right to rebuild its military can't be dealt with separately.
"The Iranians must first lift the death sentence against the author of `The Satanic Verses,' Salman Rushdie. They should stop torpedoing the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors," the envoy says. "They should improve their human rights record within their own country and severe all links with groups involved in international terrorism."
But Iran denies being involved in international terrorism and any human rights abuses. The government openly opposes talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Akbar Khamenei recently upheld the four-year-old death sentence against Mr. Rushdie.