WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence reports indicate that Iran is buying at least two newly built Russian attack submarines with the apparent aim of controlling the narrow straits leading into the Persian Gulf.
The prospect of Iran's trying to control the Strait of Hormuz and all shipping traffic entering the gulf has so alarmed U.S. officials that Secretary of State James A. Baker III raised the matter with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and other top Russian officials at a meeting in Moscow last week.
The Russian officials -- Mr. Yeltsin, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Defense Minister Yevgeny Shaposhnikov -- did not confirm the submarine sales, but neither did they rule them out, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
Iran has been purchasing other weapons, namely tanks and fighter aircraft, under contracts signed before the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to recent Western news accounts.
Rear Adm. Edward Sheafer, chief of naval intelligence, is expected to raise the military's concerns about the prospect of Russian submarine sales to Iran when he meets behind closed doors with the House Armed Services Committee's Sea Power Subcommittee today.
He is expected to tell lawmakers about the submarines and about "particularly worrisome" statements from the commander of the Iranian navy that his fleet "plans to control the Strait of Hormuz," according to a senior Pentagon official.
"Iran has ordered a couple of submarines already," said the official, who insisted on anonymity. "And the crews for the first two are believed to be already in training."
Current Iranian naval forces include destroyers, frigates, patrol craft and mine warfare ships, but no submarines, a survey by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies shows.
Last month, Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that Iran and Iraq were locked in an arms race. "Over the next 10 to 15 years, Iran and Iraq will continue their competition for hegemony in the gulf and will seek to strengthen their military capabilities," he said.
"A secular state in Iraq and a religious state in Iran are inherently at cross purposes," the general said. "This enmity is likely to lead to situations in which war is a distinct possibility. The renewal of warfare in the gulf would once again threaten world oil supplies."
The vessels ordered by the Iranians are Kilo-class attack submarines, which are being built both for export and for the Russian navy at boatyards in St. Petersburg and two other cities, according to intelligence reports.
The other cities apparently are Tverskaya (formerly Gorky), on the Volga River about 250 miles east of Moscow, and Komsomolsk, near Murmansk in the far north.
The boatyards turned out as many as six Kilo-class submarines in 1991, and U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that exports of these ships will become more attractive as Russian demand for hard currency intensifies, the Pentagon official said.
Kilo-class submarines, which were first put into service by the Soviet Union in 1980, are advanced diesel-powered boats mainly used for patrol missions, according to unclassified U.S. Navy and Defense Department publications.
The vessel, which carries six to 21 torpedoes as its main armament, is the smallest of the Soviet combat submarines. But it "can be particularly effective in choke points, confined waters and in coastal defense missions," the Navy said.
Plans disclosed in Iranian press reports reviewed by U.S. intelligence analysts indicate that the submarines will be based at Chah Bahar along the Gulf of Oman, the Pentagon official said.
"This will create a situation where, if Iran gets hostile or even makes noises, it will automatically put a hair trigger on insurance premiums for [commercial ships] operating in the gulf," the Pentagon official said. Higher premiums would send oil prices soaring, he explained.
"Freighters and oilers -- and their insurers -- don't like to go to places where they'll get sunk," he said.
During last week's Moscow meeting where arms sales to Iran were discussed, Russian leaders told Secretary Baker that Russia had an interest in being careful about conventional arms sales.
But they noted that arms sales brought hard currency and created jobs, the State Department said.