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Coloured by paranoia.

WE HAVE NO enemies," said Iran's minister of defence, Akhbar Toukan, in a recent interview. As a result, the country can get by with one of the smallest military procurement budgets in the Gulf of around $1bn a year, he claimed. Exactly how much Iran spends on defence is a matter of some debate the United States puts it closer to $2bn. But moderate elements in the regime are anxious to stress Iran's peaceful intentions.

American military action against Iraq has heightened fears in Tehran among the more cautious officials that if Iran is seen to be promoting fundamentalist dissent in the Arab world and seeking to dominate the Gulf, it too will bring down upon itself the wrath of the United States. They are made particularly nervous by statements such as that by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, a senior aid of Ali Khamenei, the supreme spiritual leader, who declared last November that, in preparation for a "Third World War" between Iran and the West, Iran was "activating" its anti-Western cells around the globe.

Such spine-chilling threats fall on receptive ears in the Arab world as well as the United States. Egypt and Algeria, in particular, see the hand of Tehran's radicals in their troubles with clandestine Islamic militants. "Those who think that what is happening in Algeria and Egypt are internal problems are gravely mistaken," declared Algeria's interior minister. Mohammed Hardi, at a recent meeting of Arab interior ministers convened specially in Tunis to coordinate the fight against politicised Muslim extremism. The ministers evidently had Iran very much on their minds, and who can blame them when the Tehran Times, normally noted for its relatively judicious tone, suggested that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak should be violently removed from office.

Arab leaders look with suspicion at Iran's attempts to create closer ties with the Muslim republics of Central Asia. They are apprehensive of reports that Iran is sending aid to the Bosnian Muslims, to the extent that Saudi Arabia is reportedly stepping up its assistance to counter Tehran. Iran has become highly influential in Sudan, which boasts an avowedly fundamentalist regime. And there is little doubt that Iran is giving financial help to sympathetic Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

The suspicion works both ways. Khamenei's frequent pronouncements on international issues give the impression that Iran is the beleaguered victim of an unremitting American conspiracy. The United States has been putting pressure on its Western allies to impose a wideranging high-technology embargo on Iran which would prevent it from acquiring any material which might conceivably be used for developing advanced arms or a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capability. American sanctions were tightened in October, and in its latest move last month Washington halted the sale of a $100m chemical plant to Iran by BP America, the US subsidiary of British Petroleum.

A draft national intelligence estimate drawn up by the CIA has suggested that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme which could produce a warhead by the end of the century. "Iran has powerful political incentives for developing nuclear weapons and is trying to develop a broad-based nuclear infrastructure that it hopes will give them the option for weapons if they decide to exercise it," a Bush administration official told the New York Times in December.

The same official added, however, that he did not "see in Iran the same kind of crash nuclear programme that we've learned about in Iraq". The issue is controversial even inside the CIA where alarmists, unnerved by the failure to recognise Iraq's huge arms build-up before the Kuwait war, are accused of drawing incorrect parallels.

Perhaps the best argument against drawing hasty conclusions is that Iran simply cannot afford to embark on a nuclear weapons programme except over a very long period. Unlike aid to Islamic militants in the Arab world, which probably comes from the burgeoning coffers of the revolutionary foundations, nuclear development falls within the purview of the state. Faced with the gigantic problem of rationalising and revitalising the economy, it is highly unlikely that President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani is willing to divert more resources than necessary to the defence sector as a whole, let alone indulge in dreams of making Iran a nuclear power.

Not surprisingly, Iran vigorously protests its innocence. Iran's deputy foreign minister, Ali Mohammed Besharati, justifies Iran's defence expenditure by its experience of the eight-year war with Iraq and its extended frontiers. "We have no need for nuclear weapons," he explained. "Our neighbouring countries are signing military pacts with the big powers one by one, and strengthening their military arsenals. So why can't we replace the weapons we lost during the eight-year imposed war |with Iraq~?"

Iran is unquestionably rebuilding its armed forces. According to statistics published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, it has bought some 30 MiG-29s and ten Su-24s from Russia, as well as 12 F-7s from China, since 1990. Some 300 tanks were also acquired from Russia last year.

The biggest furore, however, has been caused by a $1.3bn order for three Russian submarines, the first of which was delivered last November. For some reason, this is seen as distinctly threatening since no other Gulf country has submarines. But no-one has come up with a reason why Iran should need them other than to provide a little kudos for the long-neglected navy.

The navy commander, Admiral Abbas Mohtaj, has his own theory which, coloured though it is by typical Iranian paranoia, has a certain superficial plausibility. By giving such publicity to the submarine purchase, he claimed in November, the Western countries were trying to alarm the Arab Gulf states and "create a huge arms market for their weapons in the region". The only problem with the argument is that the Gulf states hardly need encouragement to buy Western arms.

The GCC countries are alarmed enough already about Iran's intentions, particularly after it seized the three miniscule islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tumbs in the Gulf last summer. Iran says it has a historical claim to the islands. At December's GCC summit in Abu Dhabi, the assembled heads of state used strong language to reiterate their call for Iran to withdraw from the islands. Tehran replied equally firmly that it would "never hesitate to defend the sovereignty and safeguard the territorial integrity of Iran". In a Friday sermon, President Rafsanjani taunted his Arab neighbours, saying: "Iran is surely stronger than the likes of you. To reach these islands, you will need to cross a sea of blood."

It is this sort of language, especially when it comes from a supposed moderate such as Rafsanjani, which causes such anxiety in the Gulf and in Washington. Looked at in sober light, however, it is less likely to reflect Iran's aggressive ambitions than the conviction that it is a besieged nation desperately trying to defend itself against superior and hostile foreign powers.
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Title Annotation:Iran's support for militant Islamic fundamentalists
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:1150
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