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Iran builds up military strength at mouth of Gulf

August 6, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 GMT)

From Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary William Perry on Tuesday labeled Iran "a growing threat" to stability in the Persian Gulf region.

Pentagon sources say Iran is building up its military strength around the mouth of the Gulf, thereby increasing its capability of shutting off one-fifth of the world's oil supply.

"The threat from Iran has increased and is still growing," Perry told a convention of lawyers in Orlando, Florida. "To counter these threats, we maintain strong military forces ... in the Gulf region."

Last week, Perry hinted that Iran may have been behind the June 25 attack on U.S. military housing near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American airmen.

However, on Tuesday, Iran said in a letter that the U.S. claim that Tehran may have been behind the truck bombing is "disinformation," and threats of retaliation against those involved are "state terrorism."

U.S. threats have "potentially dangerous repercussions to international peace," Iran's foreign minister wrote U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, calling on the United Nations to help prevent any escalation of conflict.

On Monday, President Clinton authorized sanctions against Iran and Libya that would punish international firms doing business with the two nations, which Washington has accused of sponsoring international terrorism.

Worrisome location

Pentagon planners see Iran as a more dangerous adversary than either Iraq or Libya, because of its geographic position.

If the United States were to consider launching a Tomahawk cruise-missile strike against Iran in retaliation for international terrorism, military sources say the first sign would be the quiet exodus of U.S. Navy ships from the Gulf.

The reason: Unless the United States neutralized Iran in a large-scale attack, Iran's military could effectively block off the mouth of the Gulf, trapping U.S. warships inside.

In the past two years, Iran has obtained two Russian kilo-class diesel submarines, and a third is to be delivered in a month or two. Iran also has taken delivery of 10 Chinese fast-attack boats equipped with C802 anti-ship missiles with a 60-mile range.

And sources say Iran continues to build up its forces on three key islands -- Abu Musa, Tunb and Sirri -- near the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Persian Gulf. Iran is adding Hawk anti-aircraft and Silkworm anti-ship missiles to the strategic islands.

"I can tell you that their activities and buildup in the Gulf seem to go far beyond their defensive need, particularly on those three little islands," Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said.

However, Bacon played down the notion of Iran seeking to disrupt oil supplies. He said in Washington on Tuesday that Tehran used the Gulf for most of its oil exports, and "they would be the first victim" of any cutoff.

But sources say Iran's formidable shore defenses could pose a threat to U.S. warships if Iran were provoked. There's no question the U.S. military forces in the Gulf region are far superior to Iran's, but Iran is not defenseless.

As one senior officer explained, "Unlike Iraq and Libya, the United States can't just whack Iran and walk away."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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