WASHINGTON — An undetermined number of Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship missiles have arrived in Iran, which has used the weapons in the past against vessels in the Persian Gulf, Reagan Administration sources said Wednesday.
U.S. intelligence agencies tracked an Iranian merchant ship carrying the missiles from North Korea, where it left about 10 days ago after loading the weapons. Sources said the ship was being unloaded Wednesday at the Iranian naval base at Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow entrance to the gulf.
Officials said the shipment contained a small number of Chinese-made Silkworm missiles and several similar, Soviet-designed Styx missiles, which North Korea and several other Soviet allies manufacture. The radar-guided missiles carry 1,000-pound warheads and have a range of about 50 miles.
The source of the missiles has not been determined, though officials said they likely came from North Korea or China, which has sold Silkworms to Iran in the past over strong U.S. objections.
A State Department official said Wednesday that China last year sold Iran $1-billion worth of weapons, including Silkworms, small arms, artillery pieces and a large amount of ammunition. Much of that military hardware has been routed through North Korea, according to U.S. officials who have monitored the shipments.
China Has Denied Sales
Chinese government officials have repeatedly denied selling weapons to Iran. In November, senior Chinese officials pledged to Under Secretary of State Michael H. Armacost that China would do everything it could to prevent the "diversion" of Silkworms to Iran.
In addition to the Silkworm and Styx missiles, the shipment that arrived this week contained launchers that Iran can use to mount the missiles aboard ships or even small patrol craft, bringing far more potential targets within the missiles' range, officials said.
Estimate of 100 Missiles
Until now, Iran has fired truck-mounted Silkworm missiles only from bases on the Faw Peninsula, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Intelligence officials believe that Iran may have as many as 100 of the missiles in its arsenal.
Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr., asked about the Silkworm shipment after a speech in Washington on Wednesday, said he is "not concerned" that Iran apparently has acquired the equipment to mount the deadly missiles aboard ships. He said the U.S. Navy had adequate countermeasures to deal with the new threat.
A Silkworm damaged the U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City in Kuwaiti waters last October and injured its American captain, prompting the Navy to shell an Iranian oil platform in the gulf in retaliation. In October and November, Iran fired at least seven Silkworms toward ships and port facilities in Kuwait, severely damaging Kuwait's main oil-loading terminal.
Iran has targeted Kuwait because it considers the small gulf nation an ally of Iraq, against whom Iran has been waging a bloody, eight-year war.