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Iran's Arms Imports

Iran's armament strategy, which actually began in the mid-1980's, heavily depended on imports, and especially those from the Soviet Union, in order to achieve some kind of parity with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Soviet Union has not appreciably changed that strategy, and potential suppliers have been willing. The former Soviet republics continued to provide arms in return for the hard currency obtained from Iranian oil, China and North Korea provided SSM, fighter, and other technologies, and European and Third World suppliers, in a decreasing domestic arms market, increased their interest in the Iran market. The net result has allowed Iran to continue to depend on its import strategy, and at lower costs because of the increased competition for market entry.20 Iran has especially worked to develop arms trade relationships with China, North Korea, and Russia. Other suppliers include South Korea, Libya, Syria, Taiwan, Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Switzerland, Pakistan, and some Eastern European countries. Additionally, in order to develop the expertise necessary to use the imported weaponry, Iran depends on Third World nations to provide training and technical expertise, including Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and Eastern European countries.

Washington broke its diplomatic ties with Tehran in April 1980. This opened the door for the Soviet Union and later Russia's alliance with Iran. It was arranged to transfer between US$2-$4 billion in arms to Iran, including the agreement to help Iran construct peaceful nuclear programs (including the Bushehr reactor).

Iran's domestic and foreign politics had caused a noticeable shift by the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. By 1986 Iran's largest arms suppliers were reportedly China and North Korea. China, for example, was believed to have supplied Iran with military equipment in sales funneled through North Korea. According to an unconfirmed report in the Washington Post, one particular deal in the spring of 1983 netted Beijing close to US$1.3 billion for fighters, Type 59 tanks, 130mm artillery, and light arms. China also delivered a number of Silkworm HY-2 surface-to-surface missiles, presumably for use in defending the Strait of Hormuz. As of early 1987, China denied all reported sales, possibly to enhance its diminishing position in the Arab world. North Korea agreed to sell arms and medical supplies to Iran as early as the summer of 1980. Using military cargo versions of the Boeing 747, Tehran ferried ammunition, medical supplies, and other equipment that it purchased from the North Korean government. According to unverified estimates, total sales by 1986 may have reached US$3 billion.

Other countries directly or indirectly involved over the years in supplying weapons to Iran have included Syria (transferring some Soviet-made weapons), France, Italy, Libya (Scud missiles), Brazil, Algeria, Switzerland, Argentina, the Soviet Union (and after 1991, Russia), East Germany, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Japan (commerical landing ships later converted to mine layers), North Korea, South Korea (commerical landing ships later converted to mine layers), Pakistan, Sweden, and Ukraine. Direct foreign influence, however, was minimal because most purchases were arranged in international arms market. Less than legal practices also contributed to the disconnect. For instance, a shipment of howitzers from Austria to Libya was reportedly diverted by the Libyans to Iran.

Moreover, the influence of the major arms suppliers was balanced by other international relationships. Many West European states in 1988 had arms embargoes against shipments to Iran, but nevertheless some matériel slipped through. West European states often wished to keep communication channels open, no matter how difficult political relations might have become. For example, despite strong protests from the United States, the British government in 1985 transferred to Iran a fleet-refueling ship and two landing ships without their armament. To get around Britian's embargo the landing ships were to be used as hospital ships. They were subsequently rearmed in Iran with machine gun, cannon, and unguided rockets. The British also allowed the repair of two Iranian BH-7 Hovercraft. In 1982 Tehran began negotiations with Bonn for the sale of submarines. Iran also approached the Netherlands and, in 1985, purchased two landing craft, each sixty-five meters long and having a capacity exceeding 1,000 tons. The influence of the Asian arms-supplying countries was further minimized because purchases were made in cash upon delivery with no strings attached. Foreign influence was less pronounced in 1987 than at any time since 1925, because a defiant Tehran espoused "independent" foreign and military policies, based on a strong sense of Islamic and nationalistic values.

In spite of Iran's claims of self-sufficiency, some foreign experts believe that Iran lacks the industrial or technical capability to do much more than enhance or splice foreign-designed weapons systems. As a result, Iran still has significant foreign dependencies in its armament process. In 1995, Iran contracted with India to provide specialists to upgrade and maintain its Russian-provided armaments. In 1999 Iran also contracted with China to upgrade Iran's Fl-10 anti-ship cruise missile.

Iran continues to seek Russian designs and equipment in order to help modernize its defense-industrial base. For example, In 1995, Iran purchased a production license for jet engines from the Russian VPK MAPO in order to gain additional expertise. The license authorizes the Iranian State Industrial Aircraft Company to produce 60 TV-117 turboprop engines for installation on Ukrainian and Russian passenger jets that also will be purchased or produced under license. In mid-1997, Iran opened a plant to produce Russian-designed T-72 main battle tanks under license. Then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani hailed the plant as a "significant step toward technology transfer and strengthening of engineering design in Iran." In 1999 Iran announced a domestically produced jet engine, the Tolou-4 "'mini-jet,'" produced by the state-own aviation industry "under the control of Iran's defense ministry."

In 1997, Iran's arms import level was $850M (1997$US), compared with $1.8B (1997$US) in 1991. This placed Iran 15th globally.




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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:13 ZULU