IRAN IS BUILDING UP its naval forces in the Persian Gulf region beyond what the country needs for self-defense, military analysts say. -------------------------------
NICOSIA, Cyprus - Iran's navy has been conducting intensive maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea that range from high-speed-missile deployment to integrating new attack submarines into their order of battle.
These and other war games involving amphibious and logistical exercises, electronic warfare and interdicting ships reflect a new pattern and sophistication in that country's naval operations.
The frequency and scale of these exercises, often conducted with ground and air formations, have increased in recent months as Iran expands its navy with submarines, missile attack craft, anti-ship missiles and a marine commando force.
This new emphasis on naval power, particularly Tehran's deep-water objectives in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean and possibly the Red Sea as well, is heightening concern in the Gulf and beyond.
Iran and Pakistan held joint naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean in late February, the first time Iranian forces have staged exercises with foreign powers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
What made these 10-day war games even more significant is that at least one of Iran's two recently acquired Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines took part.
"What the Iranians are looking for, and what the Pakistanis have experience in, is training subs to attack surface ships," says Capt. Richard Sharpe, editor of the authoritative Jane's Fighting Ships.
"Make no mistake. Iran wants to dominate the region in the maritime sense. It wants to generate offensive capability. It can do that with submarines."
The naval developments are part of a major Iranian arms buildup that has been under way since the 1980-88 war with Iraq ended. At that time, Iran threw in the towel because its military machine, severely starved of equipment by a U.S.-led arms embargo, was worn out.
Iran claims, with some justification, that its rearmament program is designed solely to restore its defensive capabilities.
Having been taken by surprise in 1980, when Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops invaded the fledgling Islamic republic, the Iranians are determined not to be caught napping again.
But the West and the Gulf Arab states see the arms buildup as the precursor of renewed Iranian expansionism.
The Iranian buildup "has gone beyond what Iran would need for self-defense," said Vice Adm. Douglas Katz, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
"Iran is proceeding in a direction that would give it a significant war capability that could be a threat to the region," Katz said in an interview with the Defense News weekly at his Bahrain headquarters.
Iran, with 1,580 miles of coastline along the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, considers itself the paramount power in the region and wants the region free of foreign powers.
Military analysts say it will take as much as five years of training before Iran's armed forces will be able to absorb the new high-tech systems and conduct combined-arms operations.
A key mission of Iran's naval force appears to be acquiring the capability of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow gateway to the Persian Gulf through which one-third of the world's oil supplies flow, much of it destined for the United States.
Two years ago, Iran annexed the tiny island of Abu Musa, which dominates the entrance to the strait, after sharing sovereignty of it with the United Arab Emirates for 20 years.
Iran also has pressed claims to the nearby flyspeck islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb, to the alarm of its Gulf neighbors, who see the islands as potential bases for Iran's navy.
However, Iran's robust rearmament program should be viewed in the context of major arms purchases by its Western-backed Gulf neighbors - which far exceed Iran's - plus the turmoil building up in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to the north, the rivalry with neighboring Turkey and the presence of a U.S. task force in the region.
And to the west lies Iran's ancient enemy, Iraq - on its knees now, but with a recalcitrant Saddam still in control and capable of mischief.
Just what Iran's intentions are remains, as U.S. analyst Michael Collins Dunne put it, "tantalizingly undecipherable."
But Iran's long-term naval objective appears to be to boost its power-projection capability in the Indian Ocean and possibly the Red Sea, and to exclude foreign military intervention in the region.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt claims Iran wants to base warships at Port Sudan, midway down the western shore of the Red Sea.
That would give Iran a strategic naval foothold in that important waterway and threaten Saudi Arabia's western coastline, particularly its oil terminal at Yanbu, and oil shipping using the Suez Canal.
Tehran has close military ties with Sudan, an Islamic state and potential flashpoint in the region.
During the final stages of the 1980-88 war, after the United States intervened to protect neutral shipping from Iranian attack, Iran found there was little to be gained from dominating the Strait of Hormuz while U.S. aircraft carriers and warships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles were able to deploy in the Arabian Sea beyond Tehran's reach.
Iran's acquisition of the two Kilo-class submarines, which each carry 36 torpedoes, could threaten surface warships in the eastern approaches to the strait. Iran is expected to get a third Kilo.
Western analysts believe that if the Kilos were to challenge the U.S. Navy or other Western powers, or hinder tanker traffic, the response would be overwhelming and probably lethal for the Kilos.
Each Kilo can carry 36 mines, which can be sown without surfacing.
Western intelligence reports say Iran bought 1,800 mines with the submarines. U.S. military sources say Iran is currently negotiating with China to buy rocket-propelled EM52 mines.