Iran expanding its quest for weapons to South Africa, U.S. officials say

April 13, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In defiance of the escalating U.S. campaign to tighten the squeeze on Iran, the Islamic republic is expanding its $5 billion global quest for arms to rebuild its arsenal, according to senior U.S. officials.

The latest contact has gone as far afield as South Africa, where Iranian representatives in recent weeks have unsuccessfully explored the possibility of buying long-range artillery. In recent months, Iran also has explored the possibility of buying tanks from Poland and Slovakia and of buying war materiel from other non-Western countries such as 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 trade in the United States.

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 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 growing ties between Tehran and Pretoria reflect the kind of economic relationships shaping the post-Cold War world.

"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.

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