Iran Gives Weapons, $200 Million a Year to Help Lebanese Hezbollah Re-Arm

Iran has provided weapons and as much as $200 million a year to help the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah re-arm itself to levels beyond those in 2006, when the group waged a war with Israel, the Pentagon said.

The unclassified review of Iran’s military power, the first submitted under legislation passed last year, cites the Persian Gulf nation’s “longstanding relationship” with Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group.

Iran views Hezbollah “as an essential partner for advancing its regional policy objectives,” the Pentagon said in the 12-page account, submitted yesterday to congressional committees. The report also examines Iran’s build-up of its navy and air forces, and its ties with China, Russia and Venezuela.

Israel interdicted a merchant vessel in November with 36 containers, or 60 tons, of weapons for Hezbollah, including rockets and anti-tank shells, the Pentagon said. The Iranian and Syrian governments, the main backers of Hezbollah, denied any knowledge of the arms shipment.

Iran also is training Hezbollah fighters in camps in Lebanon and provides as much as $200 million a year in funding, according to the report.

Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim el-Moussawi said in a telephone interview he had no comment on the report.

‘Thorough Understanding’

“It is clear from this report that the Department of Defense has a thorough understanding of the potential threats posed by Iran’s military capabilities,” said Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The report will help “build the necessary strategies to address these issues and keep America and our allies safe,” he said in a statement.

The top Republican on the committee, which also received a classified section of the review, disagreed. California Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon said he will use defense funding legislation “to force the administration to develop a long-term, comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran.”

President Barack Obama’s administration has said it wants to stick to a strategy of diplomacy and increasing pressure, such as economic sanctions, to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium, a process that could lead to an atomic bomb. Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said military action would only delay the nuclear program and inflame an unstable region.

War in 2006

The 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel ended Aug. 14, 2006. About 1,200 Lebanese and 159 Israelis were killed in the fighting, which also displaced almost 1 million people. The United Nations inserted peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon after the conflict.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on Feb. 18 of this year that Israel “should be dealt with once and for all” if it makes threats to countries in the region.

Ahmadinejad told Nasrallah in a telephone call that readiness to repel possible Israeli action should be maintained, according to the presidential Web site. “Iran will be on the side of the countries of the region and Lebanon,” the Iranian leader said.

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, couldn’t be reached for comment today when called on his mobile phone and at his office. Calls placed to the public relations offices of the president and the ministry of defense after regular working hours weren’t answered.

Oil Threat

The Pentagon study points to the potential Iranian threat to oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, one of the world’s major waterways for crude exports.

“Iran can attack targeted ships with anti-ship cruise missiles from its own shores, islands and oil platforms using relatively small mobile launchers,” the Pentagon said.

U.S. military officials -- including General David Petraeus, the military commander in the Middle East and Central Asia -- expressed confidence last week that any attempts by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf could be countered.

Petraeus said in an interview that it is “somewhat unlikely” that Iran would attempt to block the strait because so much of its oil-based economy depends on its own oil traffic through the waterway, which leads to the world market.

Almost a quarter of the world’s oil flows through the 33- mile-wide (53-kilometer) strait between Iran and Oman at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Iran also has an “active” program to develop unmanned aerial vehicles and is trying to build its own fighter aircraft derived from older U.S.-built F-5s, according to the Pentagon report.

Nuclear Defenses

Iran is particularly focused on developing defenses for its nuclear sites, the Defense Department said. That includes establishing a separate air defense force and the prospect of acquiring a weapons system from Russia, a sale the U.S. has opposed.

In late 2008 and early 2009, Iran tested a multistage space launch vehicle, indicating progress on technologies that would be needed for a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, according to the review.

The report also outlines the strength of Iran’s military manpower. Its unconventional forces alone, including commandos and special-forces personnel and the Basij militia, may exceed 1 million, the Pentagon said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

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