Iran is quietly building a stockpile of thousands of high-tech small arms and other military equipment -- from armor-piercing snipers' rifles to night-vision goggles -- through legal weapons deals and a UN anti-drug program, according to an internal UN document, arms dealers and Western diplomats.
The buying spree is raising Bush administration fears that the arms could end up with militants in Iraq. Tehran also is seeking approval for a UN-funded satellite network that Iran says it needs to fight drug smugglers, stoking US worries it could be used to spy on Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan -- or any US reconnaissance in Iran itself.
The US has a strict embargo on most trade with Iran, which it accuses of supporting terrorist organizations and trying to build nuclear arms.
It also has imposed sanctions on dozens of companies worldwide over the past decade for supplying Tehran with equipment it can use either for nuclear or conventional warfare.
Much of the military hardware has been hard to hide -- sales of tanks and anti-ship missiles by Belarus and China, or helicopters and artillery pieces from Russia have been well documented by US authorities and international nongovernment agencies.
Other weapons are smuggled and may be revealed only by chance -- such as the consignment of 12 nuclear-capable cruise missiles delivered by Ukrainian arms dealers to Iran four years ago but divulged by Ukrainian opposition officials only recently.
The smaller weapons and related material Iran is amassing may not be as eye-catching. But they are of US concern because of their origin -- through UN-funded programs or technically advanced Western countries -- and because they could harm US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan -- or ultimately Iran, which President Bush has not been ruled out as a military target.
Iran says it needs the satellite network, high-tech small arms bought on the European arms market and night-vision goggles, body armor and advanced communications gear through the UN program to fight drug smugglers pouring in from neighboring Afghanistan.
``We need assistance,'' Pirouz Hosseini, Iran's chief delegate to UN organizations in Vienna told The Associated Press, dismissing US fears as ``a political stance not based on realities.''
But such high-resolution satellite imagery could reveal what US troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan are doing on the ground -- or what the US is seeing as it spies from outer space for evidence of illicit Iranian nuclear activity.
And with Iran suspected of backing insurgents in Iraq, Washington fears some of the equipment bought in Europe or delivered as part of the UN-backed, anti-drug fight could be used against US troops there, say Western diplomats here who are familiar with US concerns.
Austrian officials with access to counterintelligence information told AP that Iranian diplomats in European capitals routinely focus on securing arms deals. Like the Western diplomats, the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Just four months ago, US and Austrian authorities arrested two Iranians in Vienna on charges of trying to illegally export thousands of sophisticated American night-vision systems for Tehran's military -- a powerful force in the region.