What A Deal With Iraq Won't Fix: The Weapons Buildup In Iran

The deal that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan cut with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein on Feb. 22 won't end the weapons buildup in the Middle East. Saddam's continued efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons are a bigger threat to his neighbors than to the U.S. or Europe. So they're arming themselves. Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all have medium-range missile systems.

Iran's weapons program, however, is the boldest. So bold, indeed, that it alarms both Iran's neighbors and the U.S. Washington believes Iran is receiving knowhow from Russia. That disturbs the Administration because Russia has been working to increase its Middle East clout at U.S. expense by moves such as intervening in the Iraq crisis.

Consequently, Iran's program will be high on the agenda when Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin visits Vice-President Al Gore in Washington on Mar. 10. Egged on by Israel, Washington is leaning on Moscow to stop Tehran's ambitious program. The pressure is on because Iran's Shahab-3, developed from North Korea's No Dong missile with Russian help, could make a test flight by the end of this year and be deployed by 2000, according to an Administration official. With a 780-mile range, it could hit Tel Aviv or Riyadh as well as Baghdad.

That's just the beginning. Another Iranian project, the Shahab-4, based on Russia's SS-4, could be deployed in four or five years. It packs a 2,200-pound payload, flies faster to elude defense, and could reach Europe with its 1,200-mile range.

Under U.S. prodding, Moscow is toughening its stance. Late last year, Russia canceled a contract that rocket maker NPO Trud had with Iran to develop an engine for the Shahab-3. In November, it expelled an Iranian diplomat for trying to buy weapons designs. And on Feb. 18, Moscow published a decree tightening export controls. But just how vigorous enforcement will be is an open question. "You can have better regulations, but a person in the Customs Service still has no incentive to check," says Vladimir Orlov, head of Moscow's PIR Center for Policy Studies.

CASH COW. Russian officials deny that there's a big problem. Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev, for instance, insists that Russia hasn't breached international agreements covering missile nonproliferation.

A Senate subcommittee report in January alleged that Moscow's Polyus Research Institute has supplied guidance systems to Iran--an assertion the institute's director denies. Also, the report said, Russia's Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute has contracts to help Iran build wind tunnels and provide missile-design software. Meanwhile, Iranian students are studying rocket construction at schools such as Baltic State University in St. Petersburg, according to the report.

Iran's missile program depends on Russian knowhow. Russian scientists can solve glitches in the development stage, says a U.S. official. So Washington wants Moscow to restrict the flow of expertise as well.

How much Russia wants to play ball is another question. Exports could be a cash cow for its military-industrial complex, which is, according to Russian news reports, helping Iran develop a communications satellite with potential military uses.

Whatever Moscow eventually does, Tehran will remain an aggressive weapons buyer. Iran, after all, is the only country to be hit by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It suffered an estimated 45,000 casualties from Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

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