DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran test-fired a new land-to-sea ballistic missile in the Gulf, a senior official said on Tuesday, days before an annual ceremony meant to showcase its military muscle at a time of rising tension with the West over its nuclear activity.
Israel has publicly warned of possible air strikes on Iran's nuclear sites if Tehran does not resolve Western suspicions it is developing nuclear weapons know-how under cover of a declared civilian atomic energy programme, something Tehran denies.
Iran has threatened to hit Israel and U.S. bases in the region if it comes under attack, and also to block the Strait of Hormuz, the neck of the Gulf through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil exports pass.
"The defense ministry has been able to test a new missile in the Persian Gulf which has a high ability to hit targets," General Majid Bokaei, Iran's deputy defense minister, was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA, which described the missile as a ballistic missile.
"This new missile, which has been equipped with a surface-to-surface missile system, exits the atmosphere after being launched, re-enters it at high speed, and completely destroys the target vessel or warship."
Bokaei did not say when the missile was tested or give a specific indication of its range. "When this missile was tested, all the enemies' destroyers and ships retreated from near our borders," he said, according to IRNA.
The Islamic Republic will mark its National Army Day on April 18, an occasion meant to celebrate its armed forces and likely unveil military advances.
Iran often announces new weapons achievements, although these are difficult to verify independently.
In August it said it had test-launched a more accurate short-range missile capable of hitting land and sea targets within a range of around 300 km (180 miles).
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), called the announcement another example of Iran flaunting new military muscle without providing proof.
"It might very well be a weapon with a certain capability but it is extremely hard to say. We always have to be aware of the propaganda value of all these claims," he told Reuters.
"I think in general Iran will have a difficult time to develop really advanced modern missiles ... Opponents are increasingly capable of, at least in theory, destroying these kinds of weapons before they are even being deployed."
Iran has made "robust strides" in developing its ballistic missile capabilities, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote in a 2010 assessment. The IISS also said, however, that Iran's arsenal suffered from poor accuracy.
All of Tehran's ballistic missiles would be capable of carrying a nuclear payload, the IISS said at the time.
(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Mark Heinrich)