WASHINGTON -- Iran is expanding its $5 billion global quest for arms to rebuild its arsenal, according to senior U.S. officials.
Iranian officials have gone as far afield as South Africa, where they unsuccessfully explored the possibility of buying long-range artillery.
Iran also has explored the possibility of buying tanks from Poland and Slovakia, and is shopping in China in an attempt to diversify its arms dealings, long dominated by Russia and North Korea.
"Iran has now sent purchasing agents with wish lists to virtually every country that makes arms and isn't Western to see if it can do deals," a U.S. arms specialist said. "A consensus is developing [around the world] that it's not a good idea to sell arms to Iran but, unfortunately, not everyone has signed on."
Iran's initiatives have led the Clinton administration to warn a growing number of governments "at the highest levels" that trading in arms with pariah states such as Iran endangers U.S. aid and political support, according to a U.S. official.
Iran's quest comes at a sensitive time. President Clinton is now deliberating a range of tougher new sanctions, including banning all U.S. exports to Iran and barring U.S. subsidiaries from selling Iranian oil to foreign countries.
Two bills before Congress would cut off all financial transactions and bar any foreign business that deals with Iran from trading with American firms.
But the Iran-South Africa link underscores the broader problem for the United States in establishing a unilateral policy that will force Iran to change its extremist Muslim policies and behavior.
"As long as Iran has oil and the revenues from oil, it's going to have a lot of leverage, a lot of room to maneuver," said an administration source.
Although Iran is increasingly isolated from U.S. markets, it has strong trade ties with many governments. The potential arms deal between Tehran and Pretoria reflects the kind of strange economic relationship than can develop.
"They may seem strange bedfellows, but they're actually a good fit. South Africa gets the bulk of its oil from Iran," a U.S. official said. "And because of a trade imbalance in Tehran's favor, South Africa has a vested interest in finding something it can sell to Iran."
South African officials vehemently deny negotiating any arms deals with Iran. "It's nonsense," said Don Henning, spokesman for Pretoria-based Armscor, the government-run arms exporting agency.
But a wide range of U.S. officials insisted that contacts between Iranian and South African representatives have taken place recently and focused particularly on long-range artillery. The talks got as far as discussing prices.
Iran is now halfway through a 10-year program to replenish an arsenal devastated during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq -- an effort the United States is campaigning hard to slow.
U.S. analysts say between 40 percent and 60 percent of Iran's military equipment was captured, destroyed or damaged during the war. Iran also is increasingly having to replace aging systems bought from the United States before its 1979 revolution.
"Tehran is behind schedule. It's been faced with a tight market since so many sources have been cut off," the U.S. arms specialist said.
The timing of talks on the arms sales is tied partly to South Africa's change in government a year ago, U.S. officials said. Iran, since its revolution, has supported the African National Congress, so Tehran and Pretoria are on close terms.
South African President Nelson Mandela has led an aggressive campaign to market South Africa's sophisticated arms -- developed, ironically, during 17 years of U.N. arms embargo against the former white-minority regimes. He is currently visiting four Persian Gulf states, in part to boost South Africa's arms trade.
Pretoria asserts that its policy conforms with U.S. and international standards barring arms sales to repressive regimes.
But Mr. Henning said Pretoria's arms trading agency's international guidelines are under review and he declined to say if any law or regulation would prevent Armscor from selling weapons to Iran.
Largely because of its economic problems, Russia has defied U.S. pressure to curb its open-ended arms deal with Iran worth hundreds of millions of dollars, despite a U.S.-Russian agreement last fall not to sell new arms to Iran.
Russia also expects to make at least $1 billion for building at least two and possibly four light-water nuclear reactors for Iran.
Poland and Slovakia also have been "really tempted" by Iran's overtures to buy T-72 and T-55 tanks, a U.S. source said. Both could use either oil or petrodollars from Iran to help their fledgling economies making the transition to capitalism.