WASHINGTON -- U.S. military intelligence analysts believe that Iran will take delivery of its first Russian-built attack submarine by June, despite recent U.S. attempts to persuade Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to drop the sale.
That raises the possibility that Iranian submarines in the straits leading into the Persian Gulf will threaten commercial shipping, drive up oil prices and trigger a naval arms race that could ignite another war in the region, a senior Pentagon official said.
Intelligence analysts have taken seriously Iran's expressed intention to control the Strait of Hormuz, although they don't think Iran will be able to use a submarine force effectively for several years, he said.
"There would be a great deal of concern if Iran were to declare a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz," said the official, who agreed to be interviewed by The Sun on Friday on the condition that he remain anonymous. "It would require people to call [the United States] for assistance."
One possible response would be a U.S. military attack against a planned Iranian submarine base at Chah Bahar, along the Gulf of Oman, he said.
"Obviously, the easiest way to get rid of submarines is not to get them at sea, but to get them in port," the official said. "You can spin off your own scenarios."
Last Wednesday, Rear Adm. Edward D. Sheafer Jr., director of naval intelligence, told a closed-door meeting of the House Armed Services Committee's seapower subcommittee that Iran is buying at least two newly built Russian attack submarines with the apparent aim of controlling the Strait of Hormuz. He told lawmakers that two Iranian crews are believed to be in training.
In a written statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, Admiral Sheafer warned that "such an addition to Tehran's naval order of battle would have a dramatic effect on Iran's neighbors."
But the admiral also cautioned lawmakers not to expect an immediate threat by Iran, saying: "Tehran's ambitions aside, it probably will be a long time before the Iranian Navy has more than a marginal capability to operate the submarines effectively."
Besides submarines, Iran has been buying tanks, fighter aircraft and other weaponry under contracts signed before the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to various sources, including U.S. officials and Iranian opposition groups. Iran has also been suspected of trying to expand its own arms industry and nuclear capability.
Less than two weeks ago, Secretary of State James A. Baker III raised the issue of submarine and arms sales with Mr. Yeltsin and other Russian officials in Moscow. Concerns about arms exports were also voiced earlier last month during a mission led by Reginald Bartholomew, undersecretary of state for international security affairs.
"We specifically cited Iran and the need not to build another Iraq," Mr. Bartholomew told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The vessels ordered by Iran are Kilo-class attack submarines, which the Russians continue to build both for export and their its own navy at three separate facilities. The Pentagon official, who has direct access to intelligence data, said the Iranian order -- which includes an option to buy a third submarine -- is being handled by the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg.
The order was placed three years ago, with each submarine valued at $200 million to $300 million, the official said. It is unclear whether Iran is paying "in kind" with its oil and gas resources or with money, he 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.
The export model, capable of keeping a 55-member crew at sea for 40 days, typically carries 18 torpedoes, several sonar and radar systems and a suite of electronic warfare devices to eavesdrop on other ships. The Russians offer a variety of torpedoes, including those that home in on ship noises and others that travel up the wake of a moving ship, the official said. The first crew of Iranians has actually completed its training in Riga, Latvia, he said.
"We expected that first Kilo to be delivered this year, and it probably will be unless there's some political change . . . [and] people far above my pay grade lean on Yeltsin," he said.
"If it's going to get delivered, it's going to get delivered between now and June. But maybe the Iranian crew will prove less than competent and need additional training," the Pentagon official said. Western analysts will know about the delivery once the boat passes through Germany's Kiel Canal, which connects the Baltic and North Seas, he said.
"Our concern on this is not that three submarines with 18 torpedoes each is going to end the world," the official said. Instead, there's a naval arms race to worry about. Among the gulf states, naval forces are geared toward coastal patrol operations with inventories full of guided missile patrol boats and shore-based anti-ship missiles. "They are, in fact, not equipped for ASW [antisubmarine warfare]," the official said.
"It will probably prompt the Saudis to take another look. Off and on, they've said, 'Hey, we'd like to have submarines,' " he said. Although the Saudis have talked with various diesel-submarine builders in Europe, "it's at the bottom of their wish list."
In addition, "other countries might find some way of beefing up their ASW capabilities in the area," the official predicted. "You know, an awful lot of military equipment gets purchased because the neighbors have purchased military equipment."
From the Navy's perspective, efforts to persuade Russia to curb the sale of conventional weapons to Iran should focus on the whole range of potential exports, not just tanks and planes, the Pentagon official said.
"I suppose if we were to put the muscle on the Soviets, they might stop this sale. But they're desperate for funds. You get rumors that people will sell you anything you want."