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Moldova: U.S. Outbids Iran For Soviet Fighter Planes

Prague, 6 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- It is one of those post Cold War paradoxes that the United States and Iran could find themselves in a bidding war for a fleet of aging Soviet fighter jets.

But that is exactly what recently happened. And earlier this week, the Pentagon (U. S. Department of Defense) announced with barely concealed glee that it had beaten Tehran to the punch. The deal has been signed and the United States is now the owner of 21 Soviet era MiG-29s -- practically the entire Moldovan air force.

The first question that may spring to mind is "why?" U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters on Tuesday that the primary reason Washington wanted the jets was to prevent them from falling into Iranian hands. Pentagon officials say negotiations began in February after the Moldovan government informed the U.S. that Iran had expressed interest in buying its newly decomissioned airforce.

It is not every day that a country decides to liquidate its entire airforce and despite Moldova's small size, its military arsenal was quite impressive, due to the fact that it once formed part of the USSR's western boundary. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Chisinau laid claim to most of the military hardware located on its territory, including the fighter jets parked on its airfields.

These included 14 MiG-29Cs, jets capable of carrying and launching nuclear missiles that military experts compare to the U.S.-built F-16 or F-18. But Moldova soon found it lacked the money to maintain its fleet, so it offered it up for sale.

To the Iranians, whose most advanced fighter jets are F-14s that the Shah purchased from the United States in the 1970s, the planes offered by Moldova would have meant a significant upgrade. The Pentagon was keen not to see Tehran obtain them, but it was also not going to let an opportunity pass to acquire its first MiG-29Cs at unprecedented discount.

So, secret negotiations began in earnest. Under a program to encourage Russia and other former Soviet republics to dismantle weapons systems and prevent them from falling into the hands of so-called "rogue states," the U.S. Congress in 1993 gave the Pentagon broad authority to help destroy such equipment, or, when easier, to simply buy it. The program was used by the United States in 1994, for example, to purchase more than half-a-ton of weapons-grade uranium from Kazakhstan.

This summer, the Pentagon and Moldova signed a Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement that authorized the U.S. government to purchase the MiG jets from Moldova.

Last month, the deal was sealed. The decision was officially announced on Tuesday. Moscow was informed only a day before.

According to the terms of the contract, the U.S. and Moldova agreed to keep the purchase price secret. But on Wednesday, Moldovan Finance Minister Valeriu Chitan told reporters that the state budget "will gain $40 million from the deal." Although he declined to say whether this was the total amount paid by the U.S. for the jets, his statement unleashed a flurry of speculation. A high-ranking member of Moldova's parliamentary committee on defense and security was reported (Reuters) as saying the deal was worth $80 million, with half the amount to be paid in cash and half in ammunition and other equipment.

Even at that price, the United States will have obtained the MiGs at an incredible bargain, since the world market rate for a single such jet can reach as high as $30 million.

Due to concerns about their lack of maintenance, U.S. military experts are disassembling the jets and transporting them to the United States aboard military cargo planes. But once there, the jets will be re-assembled. And, as Cohen noted in his talk to reporters, they will be carefully studied by Pentagon experts and likely flown by U.S. pilots during practice missions.