FILE ID:96031305.NNE

(Eisenstadt stresses nuclear, chemical, biological threat) (580)
By Rick Marshall
USIA Staff Writer

Washington -- The high cost of assembling a powerful conventional
military may be driving Iran toward a lower cost alternative: weapons
of mass destruction.

A nuclear weapons program "may be the only way for Iran to become a
regional military power without destroying its economy; while building
a bomb could cost billions, rebuilding its conventional military would
cost tens of billions," analyst Michael Eisenstadt noted in a paper
delivered at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies March 13.

"Tehran continues to invest significant resources in these efforts,
despite severe economic restraints," he said. "Its current efforts
focus on the creation of the infrastructure needed to produce nuclear
weapons, the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, and the
acquisition and production of rockets and missiles to deliver them."

Iran's desire to pursue nuclear weapons stems from its desire to
become a dominant regional power, Eisenstadt said. "Nuclear weapons
would transform Iran into a regional military power, provide it with
the means to intimidate its neighbors, and enable Iran to play the
role that its leadership believes is rightfully its due."

The legacy of the Iran-Iraq War "highlighted Iran's strategic
vulnerability and the importance of having a powerful deterrent to
deal with Iraq."

In addition, Eisenstadt writes, Iran may believe that "in the event of
a confrontation with the U.S., only a nuclear capability could deter
the U.S. and thereby enable it to avert a military disaster."

Eisenstadt noted that most public estimates suggest that Iran is at
least seven to 15 years from developing a nuclear capability, but that
with significant outside help the country might require less time.
"Without significant outside help, however, Iran will face formidable
obstacles to realizing its nuclear ambitions."

While Iran's nuclear capability may be years away, its chemical
weapons program is already the largest in the Third World, Eisenstadt
said. "It can produce several hundred tons of chemical agent a year
and may have produced as much as 2,000 tons of agent to date."

As for biological weapons, Iran is thought to be able to deploy them
and "disseminate them via terrorist saboteurs, or spray tanks on
aircraft or ships, although more advanced means of dissemination -- by
unmanned aircraft or missiles for instance -- may currently be beyond
its means."

While Eisenstadt deemed the bulk of Iran's conventional capability as
"relatively modest," the country's potential to strike at sensitive
targets in the Persian Gulf and even close the Straits of Hormuz
temporarily make the Iranian Navy a threat of some consequence to the
United States and its allies.

Iran's objectives in building up its naval assets, he said, are "to
undermine the position of the U.S. -- its main competitor for
influence in the Persian Gulf -- increase its own influence in this
area of vital concern, and enable it to disrupt the flow of oil from
the region should its vital interests be threatened."

Nonetheless, Eisenstadt noted that Iran's continuing economic
difficulties -- declining oil prices, its rising foreign debt, a high
birth rate and economic mismanagement -- should limit the country's
ability to develop its conventional military greatly over the next
years. The lack of funds has "forced Iran to reduce defense spending,
cut procurement across the board by about half, cancel arms contracts,
defer or stretch out procurement of key items. ... In these
circumstances, Iran will find it increasingly difficult to sustain
even current levels of military spending," the paper states.