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Iran Says It Has Designed Radar-Evading Military Aircraft

TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has designed a radar-evading aircraft, the head of its air force said, the Islamic Republic's latest announcement of progress on military hardware amid persistent tension with the West over its nuclear plans.

Brigadier General Hassan Shahsafi was also quoted as saying the air force had test-fired a new, Iranian-made air-to-air heat-seeking missile with a range of 40 kilometers, saying there were plans to extend it to 100 kilometers.

Iran often says it has made advances in its arms, but Western analysts say it is tough to assess the claims as few details are usually released. One analyst said the country's technology was still no match for U.S., European, Russian, or Chinese designs.

Shahsafi told state radio that Iranian aerospace experts had designed the aircraft and military researchers were now seeking to make a small prototype.

"I think we will finish its research part by the end of the year and then we will get on with the production phase," he said, referring to the Iranian year that ends in March.

On the December 1 missile test, he said it pursued and took out a dummy target released from a second fighter jet, Iran's English-language Press TV said on its website.

Iran often stages war games or tests weapons to show its determination to counter any attack by the United States or Israel against sites they believe are to make nuclear arms.

Iran, the world's fourth-largest crude oil producer, says its uranium enrichment activities are aimed at making fuel for a network of planned electricity-generating nuclear power plants.

Unconventional Tactics

The United States says it wants diplomacy to end the nuclear row, but neither Washington or Israel have ruled out military action if that fails. Iran has vowed to retaliate if pushed.

Military analysts say Iran's real ability to respond could be with more unconventional tactics, such as deploying small hit-and-run craft to attack oil tankers, or using allies in the Middle East to strike at U.S. or Israeli interests.

Pieter Wezeman, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said he did not believe Iran had the technology to design a modern fighter plane.

"The Iranian military industry is significant in size, but it has never been able to design or produce any modern weapon which is comparable to anything that is produced in Western Europe, the United States, Russia or China," Wezeman said by telephone.

"They would be able to defend themselves with more guerrilla-style methods," he said.

Iran is estimated to have 280 combat aircraft, including Russian-made MiG 29 aircraft and old U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms, but serviceability may be 80 percent or lower, analysts say.

The United States, which has not had ties with Tehran since 1980, has imposed sanctions on Iran that make it difficult for Tehran to buy spare parts for military and civilian aircraft.