N. Korea Gunboat Shipment Helps Iran Expand Military

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North Korea is sending a shipment of gunboats to Iran that U.S. intelligence agencies say will be converted into guided-missile warships.

The gunboats were loaded onto an Iranian freighter at the North Korean port of Nampo over the past two weeks. The shipment is believed to be headed to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Times.

The shipment, which is being monitored by U.S. intelligence, highlights growing military cooperation among states identified by President Bush as forming an "axis of evil.

The Iranian ship, the Iran Meead, was tracked from its home port of Bandar Abbas to the Chinese port of Tianjin in late February and then to Nampo, where it picked up the gunboats.

The North Korean boats were not identified by type. However, the officials said the North Koreans produce two types of small coastal patrol gunboats: the SO-1- and Sinpo-class boats.

In January, naval missiles were shipped from China to Iran. The weapons were identified as air defense missiles with ranges of up to eight nautical miles.

Iran has been building up its military forces in the past several years with warships, tanks and missiles from North Korea, Russia and China.

U.S. intelligence agencies recently detected a Russian sale of an advanced electronic warfare system to Iran. The system, known as Akup, is designed to jam U.S. airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, key command and control elements for U.S. military.

U.S. officials view the North Korean gunboat sale as a sign that Tehran is expanding its weapon sources.

Most of Iran's earlier purchases of naval weapons had been from China. Beijing concluded a deal in 1992 with Iran for a series of missile ships; it also sold Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran.

The naval buildup is part of decade-old efforts by the Iranian military to revitalize its naval forces.

U.S. officials fear Iranian naval forces could be used to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman.

North Korea in the past has supplied Iran with Scud missiles, and Russia has sold MiG jets, tanks and armored vehicles.

Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian defense minister, said in August that Iran is boosting its military over the next four years to be prepared to deal with regional enemies.

The Iranian military is seeking long-range precision strike arms, he said.

"The [defense] ministry has launched a comprehensive plan to produce and improve conventional arms for defensive uses in the aftermath of the crippling sanctions imposed during and after the 1980 to 1988 Iraqi-imposed war, Adm. …