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U.S. Cuts Into the Arms Flowing to Iran

January 22, 1987|ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN | Anthony H. Cordesman is the author of several books on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

The key to bringing the Iran-Iraq war to an end, to rebuilding the security of 50% of the world's oil reserves and to keeping Iran and Iraq as powerful buffers against Soviet expansion is to deny Iran the arms that it needs to continue its efforts to conquer Iraq or to threaten such critical oil-exporting states as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

To put this issue into perspective, it is necessary to look beyond the relatively trivial effect of covert U.S. arms shipments, which totaled about $30 million, and examine the overall flow of arms and military supplies to Iran--about $9 billion worth since the war began.

Iran has responded to the virtual cutoff of open Western arms sales since the American Embassy hostage crisis by buying most of its arms from nations like the People's Republic of China and North Korea. This has eased the strain that Iran faced in shopping the black and gray markets to assemble the parts, ammunition and equipment to keep its U.S. and European weapon systems functional.

North Korea has sold Iran more than $1 billion worth of arms since the start of the war; China has sold $2.4 billion. Together they provided about 70% of Iran's military imports in 1986.

Yet such purchases have serious disadvantages. None of the equipment is compatible with U.S. equipment, and Iran has had to retrain personnel and establish a new chain of maintenance facilities and new stocks of spare parts. Also, because Iraq has generally superior Soviet and Western equipment, Iran gets far less military effectiveness per dollar spent than its adversary does.

Increasingly in recent years Iran has been buying from the West and nonaligned Asia. These transactions are the most vulnerable to the Administration's Operation Staunch, the recently renewed effort to block arms sales to Iran and blunt its ability to maintain the war.

What follows is a partial accounting of Iranian military purchases:

Iran has received missile boats and large amounts of artillery ammunition from French manufacturers, and large amounts of ammunition from Portugal and Spain, transport aircraft and military electronics from the Netherlands, and trucks and fast patrol boats from Sweden. It has acquired some tank engines, air-defense radars, replenishment tankers, logistic support ships and other equipment from the United Kingdom, and has bought a significant amount of engineering equipment with military value from West Germany.

Iran has bought Swiss military-training aircraft, and has dodged Swiss export-control laws by buying Swiss-designed anti-aircraft systems in Italy. Other Italian firms have illegally shipped helicopters to Iran, as well as parts for U.S.-made military helicopters, Hawk missile parts and military electronics.

Iran has also had substantial covert arms deliveries from Israel, including badly needed F-4 and F-5 parts, some arms that had been captured from the Palestine Liberation Organization, large amounts of ammunition and up to 360 tons of spare parts for U.S. armor.

Iran has bought armored cars, hand grenades and rocket launchers from Brazil and cluster bombs from Chile. The latter were copies of stolen U.S. designs, but many were defective. It bought $40 million worth of arms from Argentina in 1985 alone, and for a while was negotiating the purchase of a nuclear-power plant.

In addition to its commerce with North Korea, Iran has bought F-4 and F-5 parts, mortar grenades and uniforms from South Korea. Seoul's arms sales to Tehran swelled from $1 million in 1985 to $17 million just in the first half of 1986. Iran also acquired up to $400 million worth of arms from Vietnam, largely captured U.S.-made equipment, although much of this has been worthless except for spare parts. And Iran has bought C-1 transports from Japan and tents and military vehicles from India, and has obtained U.S. aircraft parts and maintenance assistance from Taiwan.

Iran also has gotten assistance from other radical states in the Middle East. It has obtained surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, rockets, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles, ammunition and tanks from Libya (at least $100 million worth in 1985) and from Syria. Iran also seems to have bought Ethiopia's aging U.S.-made F-5 fighters, although these had little value even for spare parts.

The Soviet Union has not made direct deliveries of arms to Iran since the Islamic regime clamped down on the Tudeh Party and expelled many Soviet diplomats. Iran has, however, purchased light arms, ammunition and chemical-warfare gear from Czechoslovakia, and anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition from Poland.

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