Iran reports missile test, drawing rebuke
PARIS: Iranian Revolutionary Guards practicing war-game maneuvers test-fired nine missiles on Wednesday, including at least one the government in Tehran describes as having the range to reach Israel.
The tests drew sharp American criticism and came a day after the Iranians had threatened to retaliate against Israel and the United States if attacked.
State-run media said the missiles were long- and medium-range weapons, and included the Shahab-3, which Tehran maintains is able to hit targets up to 1,250 miles away from its firing position. Parts of western Iran are within 650 miles of Tel Aviv.
The tests, shown on Iranian television, coincide with increasingly tense exchanges with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, which Iran says is for civilian purposes but which many Western governments suspect is aimed at building nuclear weapons. Iran's military display came just a day after the United States and the Czech Republic signed an accord to allow the Pentagon to deploy part of its contentious antiballistic missile shield, which Washington maintains is designed to protect in part against Iranian missiles.
At the same time, United States and British warships have been conducting naval maneuvers in the Gulf ? apparently within range of the launch site of the missiles tested on Wednesday.
The Israelis ? whose air force last month practiced what American intelligence officials called a rehearsal for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities ? said they did not want war with Iran. But Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said, "The Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program must be of grave concern to the entire international community."
The missile tests drew a sharp response from the United States. Gordon Johndroe, the deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement at the Group of 8 meeting in Japan that Iran's development of ballistic missiles was a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
"The Iranian regime only furthers the isolation of the Iranian people from the international community when it engages in this sort of activity," Johndroe said.
He urged Iran to "refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world," and said, "The Iranians should stop the development of ballistic missiles which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon immediately."
Energy traders reacted to the news by bidding up oil prices, which had been falling in recent days. The most-watched oil price benchmark ? light, low-sulfur crude for delivery next month ? rose more than $2 a barrel in early electronic trading, though by late morning in New York the gain had been pared somewhat.
In the United States, the main presidential contenders took the missile tests as an opportunity to demand measures to restrain Iran.
The presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, said the tests "demonstrate the need for effective missile defense now and in future, and this includes missile defense in Europe as is planned with the Czech Republic and Poland." His Democrat challenger, Barack Obama, said on NBC's "Today" show that the tests showed a need for stronger restraints and incentives to head off "rising tensions that could lead into real problems."
But some saw the tests as essentially defensive in nature. A senior American intelligence official said the missile test, together with belligerent comments by Iranian officials, seemed part of a deterrent strategy to warn Iran's neighbors of Tehran's "capacity to inflict pain."
"I think Iran has a hedgehog strategy: mess with me and you'll get stuck," said Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and head of the National Intelligence Council, during remarks at the Center for National Policy, in Washington.
Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television said the missiles, fired from an undisclosed location in the Iranian desert, included a "Shahab-3 with a conventional warhead weighing one ton and a 2,000-kilometer range," about 1,250 miles. Cairo, Athens, Istanbul, New Delhi and the whole of the Arabian peninsula are within that distance of Iranian territory.
Iranian television showed what appeared to be two Shahabs lifting off within seconds of one another in a salvo firing.
"That's surprising," Charles Vick, an expert on the Iranian rocket program at GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Alexandria, Virginia, said in a telephone interview. "Historically, it's always been single launches."
Vick added, however, that the Shahab display might be less formidable than Iran had claimed. The missile's conic warhead appeared to resemble an older Shahab model with a range of about 1,500 kilometers, or 900 miles, rather than the newest one.
The Iranians fired their first Shahab a decade ago, Vick said, and are now replacing all models with a more advanced missile that burns solid propellants, which are considered better for quick launchings.
In a sense, he said, Wednesday's Shahab firings seemed to be simply a way for the Iranians to clear out old inventory. The biggest missile that the Iranians apparently fired ? known as the 3a model ? is no longer in production, Vick said.
The Shahab-3a predates the atomic jitters that arose with the debut of the Shahab-3b in August 2004. The 3b's distinctive nosecone ? known as triconic and made up of three distinct shapes? is viewed by Western experts as ideal for carrying a nuclear warhead.
The Shahab-3b, Vick said, is apparently the delivery vehicle intended for the nuclear warhead that, according to a National Intelligence Estimate issued last November, the Iranians worked on until late 2003.
The other missiles in Wednesday's tests were identified as the Zelzal, with a range of 250 miles, and the Fateh, with a range of 110 miles, Agence France-Presse reported. Iranian television showed what was said to be the Shahab-3 missile rising amid clouds of dust from the desert launch site.
Hossein Salami, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards, was quoted as saying: "The aim of these war games is to show we are ready to defend the integrity of the Iranian nation."
"Our missiles are ready for shooting at any place and any time, quickly and with accuracy. The enemy must not repeat its mistakes. The enemy targets are under surveillance," he said.
The missile tests followed remarks on Tuesday by a senior Iranian official warning the United States and Israel against attacking Iran.
"In case that they commit such foolishness, Tel Aviv and the U.S. fleet in the Gulf would be the first targets to burst into flames receiving Iran's crushing response," said the official, Ali Shirazi, a representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
Like the missile tests, the bellicose language seemed part of an effort by Iran to couple offers of negotiation with warnings of military preparedness.
Negotiations between Iran and the West are scheduled to resume this month and Iranian officials have sounded mounting alarms about speculation that the United States or Israel could attack Tehran's nuclear facilities. On a European tour last month, President George W. Bush repeated Washington's warning that no options had been ruled out.
Last weekend, Iran signaled that it would not comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring it to stop enriching uranium. During his European visit, Bush won pledges from some European leaders to tighten sanctions against Iran.
But Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said his country was prepared to open comprehensive negotiations with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the six world powers ? the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China ? that have proposed a set of incentives to resolve the impasse over its nuclear program.