Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Some say Iran's weapons come from Russia

Iran has unveiled with great fanfare a series of what it portrays as sophisticated, homegrown weapons - flying boats and missiles invisible to radar, torpedoes too fast to elude.

But experts said Tuesday it appears much of the technology came from Russia and questioned Iran's claims about the weapons' capabilities. READ MORE

Still, the armaments, tested during war games by some 17,000 Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, send what may be Iran's real message: its increased ability to hit oil tankers if tension with America turns to outright confrontation.

To underline that message, the maneuvers - code-named "The Great Prophet" - have been held since Friday around the Strait of Hormuz, the 34-mile-wide entrance to the Gulf through which about two-fifths of the world's oil supplies pass.

Throughout the war games, Iran has touted what it calls technological leaps in its weapons production. In recent years, Iran revved up its arms programs after long relying on purchases abroad to keep up its aging arsenal, hampered by U.S. sanctions and Washington's pressure on other countries against selling weapons to Tehran.

The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, proclaimed Tuesday that Iran was now able to defend itself against "any extra-regional invasion."

It was a clear reference to Iranian worries of potential U.S. military action to stop its nuclear program, which Washington claims is intended to produce nuclear weapons. Iran says it aims only to generate electricity, but has so far defied U.N. Security Council demands that it give up key parts of its program.

The new weapons, many of them shown on Iranian state TV during their tests, have come with impressive claims:

- A missile, the Fajr-3, that is invisible to radar and able to strike several targets with multiple warheads.

- A high-speed torpedo, the Hoot, able to move at some 223 mph, up to four times faster than a normal torpedo, and fired by ships cloaked to radar.

- A surface-to-sea missile, the Kowsar, with remote-control and searching systems that cannot be scrambled.

- A "super-modern flying boat," undetectable by radar and able to launch missiles with precise targeting while skimming low over the surface of the water at a top speed of 100 nautical mph.

There are questions over Iran's claims. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said "the Iranians have been known to boast and exaggerate" their weapons capabilities.

And some experts cast doubt on just how radar-evading Iran's ships and missiles are.

Iran's radars are not as advanced as those of Israel, for example - meaning that perhaps the weapons can avoid the radar that Iran has access to, but not more advanced types, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born, Israel-based analyst.

"The question here is, what radar did they test their own weapons against? If it's the radar they've been using for all these years, then that's not saying 100 percent that these things are undetectable," he said.

Others questioned if Iran developed the weapons on its own.

The Hoot torpedo - the name means "whale" - closely resembles the Russian-made VA-111 Shkval, the world's fastest known underwater missile, developed in 1995, said Ruslan Pukhov of Moscow's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

The Shkval attains high speeds by coating itself in a cocoon of air bubbles, reducing friction, and Pukhov said its technology was too sophisticated for the Iranians to produce themselves.

"Hypothetically, they could get access to the Shkval technology, but if so, I don't think they got it through Russian channels," he said.

Pukhov noted the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan once had a Soviet torpedo testing center on the remote mountain lake of Issyk-Kul. And he said that in the turmoil that followed the Soviet breakup, Kyrgyz authorities sold Shkvals to the Chinese, a major importer of Iranian oil.

Kanybek Tabaldiyev, a senior official with a Kyrgyz company that makes torpedo and other military hardware at Issyk-Kul, denied his company transferred sophisticated technology to Iran. He said it was possible weaponry had been acquired through other means.

Chinese officials had no immediate comment on whether their country provided Iran with Shkvals.

China has been pursuing closer relations with Tehran in hopes of help in meeting its energy needs, and the United States has sanctioned Chinese companies in the past, accusing them of violating international controls on transfers of weapons technology to Iran. Beijing has protested the U.S. sanctions and in 2003, it issued its first regulations controlling exports of missile, nuclear and biological weapons technology.

Whatever the Iranian armaments' capabilities - or origins - they likely won't greatly affect the military balance of power in the Gulf, where the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based, operating out of the island nation of Bahrain.

For example, the Hoot torpedo - if indeed based on the Shkval - has too short a range, about 7,500 yards, to be militarily significant, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian analyst.

But Iran may be aiming to show the world, and its people, that it has options if the standoff over its nuclear program escalates. That could boost its hand in negotiations with the United States and Europe.

"They know they are inferior to the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf, so this is their way of telling Americans .... we are not the only ones who would lose out if talks regarding the nuclear program fail," Javedanfar said.

The torpedo tests in particular are significant, he said.

"They know that if you sink one tanker in the Strait of Hormuz you can stop all shipping there, because the waters are quite shallow," he said.