Stepping up its efforts to keep advanced weaponry away from Iran, the United States has purchased 21 MIG-29 fighter jets from the tiny former Soviet state of Moldova, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced Tuesday.
The aircraft, most of them capable of carrying nuclear weapons, were purchased at an undisclosed price after the Iranian government had put out feelers about buying them from the cash-strapped republic, officials said.
The MIGs "were on their shopping list," Cohen said. "We are very happy to have them, instead of the Iranians."
Pentagon officials believe that Tehran is working to develop a nuclear capability as well as to increase its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
The MIG fighter jets were partly disassembled in recent weeks and flown by U.S. military cargo planes to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where they will be reassembled and studied, officials said.
The purchase marks a new direction for the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a 3-year-old, $380-million effort to move to safety many of the remnants of the Soviet arsenal. Moldova, which is wedged between Romania and Ukraine, signed up for the program in June.
The United States has previously bought technology to keep it away from what it regards as one of the world's most dangerous rogue states.
In 1994, the United States bought 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium--which Iran supposedly had designs on--from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
Last week, the United States agreed to sell commercial nuclear technology to China in exchange for its promise to suspend assistance to Iranian nuclear projects.
Of the 21 MIGs purchased from Moldova, 14 were MIG-29Cs, the most advanced design. There were six MIG-29As and one MIG-29B.
A senior defense official would not specify the current market price of the most advanced MIG-29s, but he said they "can get in the neighborhood" of the cost of some advanced U.S. fighter aircraft. Those can run $20 million to $30 million each, he said. Cohen described the Moldovans' price as "quite reasonable."
The senior defense official said the aircraft came on the market because Moldova decided to eliminate its air force.
Most MIGs in other countries remain in active service and are not for sale, the official said.