AP: Iran test-fired a new missile Wednesday it claimed had a range capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East, sending a provocative message days after President Barack Obama pressured Tehran to accept his offer for dialogue.
The Associated Press
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran test-fired a new missile Wednesday it claimed had a range capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East, sending a provocative message days after President Barack Obama pressured Tehran to accept his offer for dialogue.
The announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election. The vote could determine how Tehran responds to Washington's threat of further international sanctions if Iran does not respond positively by year-end to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program.
Analysts said the launch was likely intended for domestic consumption ahead of the June 12 elections and not as a message to the U.S., which has criticized past missile launches as stoking instability in the Middle East.
"But I don't think the Obama administration and other nations will look at this as a constructive sign," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Two U.S. officials confirmed the missile launch, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
"It appears the test was a success," one official said. "It appears they launched a medium-range missile."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not confirm the launch but said the U.S. is aware of Iran's pursuit of ballistic missiles.
"Our concerns are obviously based on nuclear ambitions and the implications that long- and medium-range missiles have with respect to that," Whitman told reporters at the Pentagon. "Iran is at a bit of a crossroads. They have a choice to make. They can either continue on this path of continued destabilization in the region or they can decide that they want to pursue relationships with the counties in the region and the United States that are more normalized."
After the missile test, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that if Iran manages to produce nuclear weapons, it would "spark an arms race" in the Middle East.
Iran said the solid-fuel Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface missile has a range of about 1,200 miles. It is a new version of the Sajjil missile, which the country said it successfully tested late last year and has a similar range. Many analysts said the launch of the solid-fuel Sajjil was significant because such missiles are more accurate than liquid fuel missiles of similar range, such as Iran's Shahab-3.
"Defense Minister (Mostafa Mohammad Najjar) has informed me that the Sajjil-2 missile, which has very advanced technology, was launched from Semnan and it landed precisely on the target," state radio quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. He did not name any targets for the missile when he spoke during a visit to the city of Semnan, 125 miles east of the capital Tehran, where Iran's space program is centered.
Italy said its foreign minister, Franco Frattini, canceled a planned trip to Iran on Wednesday because Ahmadinejad wanted to meet in Semnan rather than in Tehran.
Najjar said the Sajjil-2 differs from the Sajjil missile because it "is equipped with a new navigation system as well as precise and sophisticated sensors," according to Iran's official news agency.
Sajjil means "baked clay." It is a reference to a story in the Quran, Islam's holy book, in which birds sent by God drive off an enemy army attacking the holy city of Mecca by pelting them with stones of baked clay.
Iran's nuclear and missile programs have alarmed Israel. The country's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pressed Obama to step up pressure on Tehran when the two met in Washington on Monday. Israeli officials had no immediate comment on the Iranian missile launch.
Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister who trained in the U.S. as an aerospace engineer, said Wednesday's test was apparently part of Iran's broader quest to develop more advanced missiles and nuclear capability.
"They're increasing their abilities to launch rockets of longer and longer range that go beyond Israel and into Europe and eventually will carry nuclear weapons," he said. "They're troublemakers and you have to deal with troublemakers."
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination, and the Jewish state has not ruled out a military strike to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The Israeli government has been skeptical of U.S. overtures to Iran, which have received a mixed response from Ahmadinejad.
Many Western experts have expressed skepticism about Iran's professed military achievements, saying the country provides no transparency to verify its claims. Most believe Iran does not yet have the technology to produce nuclear weapons, including warheads for long-range missiles.
The U.S. released an intelligence report about 18 months ago that said Iran abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 under international pressure and has not restarted it.
Israel and several other countries have disputed the finding. But many in the West at least agree that Iran is seeking to develop the capability to develop weapons at some point. A group of U.S. and Russian scientists said in a report issued Tuesday that Iran could produce a simple nuclear device in one to three years and a nuclear warhead in another five years after that.
The study published by the nonpartisan EastWest Institute also said Iran is making advances in rocket technology and could develop a ballistic missile capable of firing a 2,200-pound nuclear warhead up to 1,200 miles "in perhaps six to eight years."
Iran says its missile program is merely for defense and its space program is for scientific and surveillance purposes. It maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian energy uses only.
After the testing of the Sajjil in November, a senior U.S. military official said Washington believed Iran was testing the first stage of what would be a two-stage rocket. Multiple stages allow long-range missiles to use less fuel.
Ahmadinejad touted the launch in the final weeks of a presidential campaign that could influence Iran's response to the U.S. outreach. Two of the three candidates approved by Iran's constitutional watchdog to run in the June election are reformists who favor improving ties with the West.
The hard-line president has been criticized by his opponents and others for antagonizing the U.S. and mismanaging the country's faltering economy. On Wednesday, the constitutional watchdog approved three candidates to challenge Ahmadinejad, setting up a showdown between reformists and hard-liners.
Hard-liners have used the Guardian Council in the past to block reformist candidates, but Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi were likely too high-profile to reject. The watchdog also approved a well known conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, a former leader of Iraq's elite Revolutionary Guards who has joined his reformist competitors in criticizing Ahmadinejad for mismanaging Iran's economy.
The group rejected 471 other candidates who wanted to run, including illiterate peasants, a 12-year-old boy and 42 women, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Reformists, who believe they have a strong chance of defeating Ahmadinejad, have criticized the president for spending an inordinate amount of time and energy slamming the West. They say his behavior has isolated Iran and believe he should have focused on battling rising unemployment and inflation in the country.
Mousavi, a former prime minister who is seen as the leading challenger to Ahmadinejad, has said he would reshape Iran's policies and restore the country's dignity.
Associated Press Writers Pamela Hess in Washington and Steve Weizman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.