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Iran: Arms Experts Downplay Venezuelan Hint Of Jet Sale To Tehran

By Breffni O'Rourke

A Venezuelan general has suggested that his country might sell its entire force of 21 U.S.-built F-16 fighter planes to Iran. Member of the Chiefs of Staff General Alberto Mueller Rojas says that he recommended selling the aging jets, and that Iran is a possible destination. But Western arms experts who spoke with RFE/RL largely dismissed such a deal as a far-fetched "political snipe."

PRAGUE, May 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say General Mueller Rojas's remarks about selling fighter jets to Iran has no military significance.

Andrew Brooks, a military-aviation specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says he does not take the scenario seriously.

"I think it is part of the -- what can I say -- theatrical performances between President [Hugo] Chavez and Washington," Brooks says.

Brooks is referring to the increasingly antagonistic relations between the hard-line leftist leader Chavez and the administration of President George W. Bush.

Aging Planes

The F-16s were delivered to Venezuela more than two decades ago, in 1983-84. Although the type is still generally regarded as one of the best lightweight fighters, the early Venezuelan version is outdated in its capability to act as a platform for modern electronically controlled weapons.

"These are aeroplanes designed to be used 10, 20, 30, [or] 40 years ago," Brooks says. "If you use them now against anybody of renown in the Middle East, you will get hacked out of the sky."

Another military aviation expert, Peter Felstead, the editor of "Jane's Defense Weekly," says the Venezuelan suggestion sounds like it was designed mainly "to annoy President Bush."

"I see this purely as a sort of an antagonistic political snipe," Felstead says. "I would be surprised if in reality this deal went ahead."

...And A Spare-Parts Fix

Felstead says that one of Venezuela's dilemmas is how to keep the American-built F-16s airworthy in the face of a lack of spare parts from the United States. Iran would presumably face the same problem.

The maintenance problem could be a key reason that Caracas is considering selling the entire fleet. According to General Mueller Rojas, it is planning to buy Russian-built Sukhoi-35 fighters instead.

The Venezuelans are suggesting that Washington has been refusing for some time to send spare parts for the F-16s. But Washington insists this is not the case.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that on May 15 that the United States did indeed ban all arms sales to Venezuela, accusing that country of failing to provide assistance in the war against terrorism.

But McCormack said that under the rules of the ban, existing commercial supply and maintenance contracts are allowed to stand until they expire. He said that in the case of Venezuela, some contracts would last until 2009.

Heard It Before?

McCormack also said Venezuela is bound by previous agreement not to sell the jets without prior U.S. approval. He downplayed the significance of General Mueller Rojas's remarks.

"This is something they [the Venezuelans] had talked about before. I think the last time they said they were going to sell the F-16s to China, [but] China had no interest in that," McCormack said. "And also I would note that there seems to be a little difference of opinion within the Venezuelan government on this [latest] matter. The minister of defense, I believe, has backed away from this statement. So I think this is overheated rhetoric."

McCormack was referring to remarks in Caracas by Defense Minister Admiral Orlando Maniglia Ferreira. The minister said there are currently no formal plans to sell the F-16s to Iran or any other country.

And the Iranian Embassy in Caracas says no deal involving the warplanes has been proposed by Venezuela.

Ironically, the first foreign customer for the F-16 --- beyond four European NATO countries -- was Iran. The Shah's government ordered 160 examples for the Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1976. But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 prompted the cancellation of that order.

Many of the F-16s initially intended for Iran were eventually sold to Israel.

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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