WASHINGTON — During the past six months, China has become the largest arms supplier to Iran, delivering at least $300 million worth of missiles and other military hardware despite U.S. efforts to stop the shipments, according to Administration officials.
Other Chinese military shipments to Iran--including heavy tanks, a version of the Soviet MIG-21 aircraft and rocket launchers--may be in the works, these officials said, adding a new element of uncertainty to the six-year old war between Iran and Iraq.
Attacks on oil facilities, shipping and other economic targets in the Persian Gulf region have mounted on both sides in recent weeks, and Iran is reportedly preparing to launch a large-scale ground offensive in the next two months.
Until now, Iran's 3-to-1 advantage in manpower has been checked by Iraq's heavy advantage in sophisticated weapons, including warplanes, tanks and missiles.
Setback to U.S. Efforts
The introduction to Iran of new arms is a setback to U.S. efforts over several years to create an international arms embargo against Iran, and Administration officials fear it could upset the tenuous military balance between the combatants.
The Chinese have consistently denied making any arms shipments to Iran despite repeated objections in Peking from U.S. Ambassador Winston Lord, according to Administration sources.
Chinese officials, however, have informally told a U.S. official that the arms sales are justified because Iran is using the weapons to aid the anti-Soviet guerrillas in neighboring Afghanistan.
This argument was not accepted by the Administration because of the type of weapons involved, which are said to include surface-to-air missiles and other arms.
Perhaps the greatest U.S. concern has arisen from persistent reports that China has agreed to supply Iran with J-6 jet fighters, a Chinese version of the MIG-21 that is similar in some respects to the U.S.-made F-5.
Deal for Jet Seen
The J-6 has not yet been seen in Iran, according to U.S. and foreign sources, but a State Department official said "it does appear" that China has agreed to supply the jets.
If the J-6 shows up over the Persian Gulf, it will be the first replacement aircraft received by Iran since the early days of its war with Iraq.
According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran has only "perhaps 80 serviceable combat aircraft." Iraq, on the other hand, is reported by the institute to have about 500 combat planes in service and has access to nearly unlimited replacements from the Soviet Union and France.
The institute reported last fall that China and Iran signed a $1.6-billion agreement in March, 1985, covering the supply to Tehran of J-6 fighters, T-59 tanks, heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles.
A State Department official said that this report has not been confirmed, but that "there definitely were some agreements (between China and Iran) in 1985" of uncertain proportions.
Until recently, North Korea was considered Iran's most important arms supplier, and those sales reportedly are continuing. But the Chinese deliveries in the past six months have put Peking at the top of the list, according to U.S. officials.
Supplied Arms to Iraq
China in the past also has been an important supplier of Iraq, providing $1.5-billion worth of arms between 1979 and 1983, according to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Defense Department officials said that now "the Chinese are selling with both hands" to the two sides in the Iran-Iraq war.
Several explanations have been offered for the Chinese decision to sell arms to Iran. Some sources called it essentially a business decision on the part of a Peking government in severe need of foreign exchange. Iran is thought to pay for weapons in oil or in hard currency obtained by selling oil.
Another dimension, several sources said, is international geopolitics and China's anti-Soviet stance. By strengthening Iran, a threatening neighbor on the Soviet Union's border, China is adding to the difficulties facing Moscow, according to this line of reasoning.
Moscow has not sold weaponry to Iran for several years and has repeatedly urged an end to the fighting. In private talks in Stockholm this June, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy reportedly urged his Soviet counterpart, Vladimir Polyakov, to stop the flow of arms supplies to Iran from Eastern European allies of the Soviet Union.
Polyakov made no commitments, according to U.S. sources, and the matter is likely to be raised anew at U.S.-Soviet discussions of regional issues at the State Department beginning today.