Iran tests missile, stoking tensions with the West

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2009 7:03 PM

Iran on Wednesday test fired an upgraded version of an advanced missile capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe, an apparent show of strength aimed at discouraging attacks on its nuclear facilities.

The test of the medium-range Sajjil-2 fueled calls for tougher sanctions against Tehran, which has resisted U.N. demands that it rein in its nuclear ambitions. Iran touted the launch as a success proving it can deter any U.S. or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities.

"This is a matter of serious concern to the international community and it does make the case for us moving further on sanctions. We will treat this with the seriousness it deserves," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after talks with U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon in Copenhagen.

Britain's Foreign Office said Iran has the "clear intention to extend the range of its missiles," calling the launch "the wrong signal to send when the international community is trying to find a diplomatic solution" to its growing nuclear program.

Wednesday's test was the third for the Sajjil-2 since it was unveiled in May. The missile has the longest range of any in Iran's arsenal, about 1,200 miles _ putting Israel, Iran's sworn enemy, and U.S. bases in the Gulf region well within reach. It could also reach parts of southeastern and eastern Europe.

Iran has dramatically accelerated its domestic missile program in recent years, part of a bid to depict itself as a military and technological power and reduce its past reliance on purchases abroad. The missile program has raised deep concerns in Israel and the West, though experts are skeptical over some of Iran's claims of advances.

In Washington, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell called the launch provocative but said the technology was not "particularly different than anything we've seen in the past."

But equally important is the political message, said Washington-based security analyst Alex Vatanka.

"One signal is very clear _ they are saying Iran will not negotiate with the West from a position of weakness. They are saying: If you think sanctions and threats are something to worry us, then you are mistaken," said Vatanka, with the intelligence analyst group Jane's.

"The message from Iran today is that Tehran can do more, Iran's arm is long," he said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment on the latest missile test.

Former Israeli defense ministry official Uzi Rubin told Israeli television, "the fact that they are capable of carrying out three launches in a year is significant, because it means the Iranians are investing a lot of money in this."

Iran has repeatedly warned it will retaliate with attacks on Israeli nuclear sites or U.S. bases in the region if either country carries out military strikes against its nuclear facilities. The U.S. and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, and Israel _ which is believed to have its own nuclear arsenal _ has not ruled out military action to stop Iran's program.

Discovery of a purported Iranian secret document that appears to describe a work plan for developing a neutron initiator, used to detonate a nuclear bomb, is the latest worry. U.S. officials have not been able to determine its authenticity.

Iran denies seeking a nuclear warhead, saying its nuclear program is intended solely to generate electricity.

Negotiations over the program have been deadlocked for months, with Iran equivocating over a U.N.-drafted deal aimed at removing most of the low-enriched uranium from the country so it would not have enough to produce a bomb. The U.N. nuclear watchdog last month sharply rebuked Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, and Washington has warned that Iran is running out of time to accept the deal or face new sanctions.

State television announced the launch in a one-sentence report declaring that the test was a success, accompanied by a brief clip showing the missile rising from the launch pad in a cloud of smoke.

Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi vowed that the Sajjil-2 would be a "strong deterrent" against any possible foreign attack. He said the new version can be fired more quickly and flies faster than previous ones, making it harder to shoot down. He gave no further details.

The two-stage Sajjil-2 is powered entirely by solid-fuel while the older Shahab-3 missile, with a similar range, uses a combination of solid and liquid fuel. Solid-fuel missiles are more accurate than ones using liquid fuel. They also can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos.

The fear in the West is that Iran will be able to produce intercontinental, three-stage missiles, which can reach more than 3,500 miles, putting much of Europe in its reach.

"If you look back at what Iran has invested in terms of manpower and funding, the missile systems program is only second to Iran's investment in the nuclear program," Vatanka said.

Fitting a nuclear warhead onto the missiles takes considerably greater technology, he said, adding, "I don't really think there is evidence to point they have this."

Iran probably has up to 300 shorter-range Shahab missiles, while the Sajjil remains in the test phase, said James Lewis, a senior defense expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Currently "it's not a sophisticated program," Lewis said, but "they've been putting a lot of money and effort into this program for more than a decade, and we have to take their claims seriously."


Associated Press correspondents Katarina Kratovac in Cairo and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.