msnbc.com news services
updated 1/1/2012 12:05:08 PM ET 2012-01-01T17:05:08

Iran's navy said Sunday it test-fired an advanced surface-to-air missile during a drill in international waters near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for one-sixth of the world's oil supply.

Iran's state TV said the missile, named Mehrab, or Altar, is designed to evade radar and was developed by Iranian scientists. The report said the missile was tested Sunday but provided no further details.

A leading Iranian lawmaker said the sea maneuvers serve as practice for closing the Strait of Hormuz if the West blocks Iran's oil sales. After top Iranian officials made the same threat a week ago, military commanders emphasized that Iran has no intention of blocking the waterway now.

The exercise covers a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch of water beyond the Strait of Hormuz, including parts of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

Story: U.S. steps up sanctions as Iran floats nuclear talks

Latest show of strength
The drill, which could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels that operate in the same area, is Iran's latest show of strength in the face of mounting international criticism over its nuclear program. The West fears Iran's program aims to develop atomic weapons — a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's for peaceful purposes only.

Video: Iran plans long-range missile test (on this page)

The 10-day exercise drew significant attention after the Iranian warnings about closing the strait. Iranian military officials later appeared to back away from that threat.

A spokesman for the exercise, Rear Adm. Mahmoud Mousavi, made a similar conciliatory comment on Sunday.

"We won't disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. We are not after this," the semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.

Prominent lawmaker Ismail Kowsari offered a different view. He said the war games are part of Iran's preparations to close the vital waterway if sanctions are imposed.

"Iran's armed forces have practiced operations to close the Strait of Hormuz several times," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Kowsari as saying Sunday.

"If we feel that the enemies want to prevent our oil exports, definitely we will close the Strait of Hormuz," he said.

One of the newest weapons
Mousavi said the missile that was tested Sunday is one of the newest in the navy's arsenal.

"It's equipped with state-of-the-art technology and a built-in system that enables it to thwart jammers," Mousavi told state TV. One way to deflect surface-to-air missiles is to confuse their guidance systems.

Also Sunday, Iranian scientists produced the nation's first nuclear fuel rod, a feat of engineering the West doubted Tehran was capable of, Iran officials said Sunday.

The announcement comes after Iran has said it was compelled to manufacture fuel rods on its own since international sanctions banned Tehran from buying them on foreign markets.

Nuclear fuel rods contain pellets of enriched uranium that provide fuel for nuclear power plants.

Iran's atomic energy agency's website said the first domestically made rod had already been inserted into the core of Tehran's research nuclear reactor.

It's unclear if the rod contained pellets or was inserted empty as part of a test.

The West fears Iran's uranium enrichment program is geared toward making atomic weapons — a charge Tehran denies.

The United States and its European allies have increased the sanctions pressure on Iran, one of the world's largest oil producers, to push Tehran to halt the enrichment.

More sanctions against Iran
U.S. President Barack Obama signed more sanctions against Iran into law on Saturday, shortly after Iran signaled it was ready for new talks with the West on its nuclear program and said it had delayed long-range missile tests in the Gulf.

Western analysts say Iran sometimes exaggerates its nuclear advances to gain leverage in its stand-off with the West.

In April, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization announced that the installation of the machinery needed for producing nuclear fuel plates had started. The nuclear plant for converting enriched nuclear fuel into fuel rods was inaugurated in 2009.

"Currently, the rod is also undergoing rays at Tehran's Research Reactor to examine its long-term performance, Iran's English language Press TV reported.

Iran says only a few countries are capable of making both the fuel "plates," used in the Tehran reactor, and nuclear fuel rods, which are used in power stations.

Enriched uranium can be used to fuel power plants and other types of reactors, which is Iran's stated aim, or to provide material for atomic bombs if processed much further, which the West suspects is the country's ultimate intention.

Tehran says it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity.

Iran's decision last year to raise the level of some enrichment from the 3.5 percent purity needed for civilian power plant fuel to 20 percent worried Western states that feel this will bring Tehran much closer to the 90 percent suitable for an atomic bomb.

Tehran has so far refused to change its nuclear course but is ready to hold new talks to resolve the dispute. Negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - plus Germany (P5+1) stalled in January.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Iran makes big claims

  1. Closed captioning of: Iran makes big claims

    >>> iran started the new year off with two big claims that its scientists produced the country's first nuclear fuel rod and also a claim that it test fired a new surface-to-air missle. iran's official news agency said the fuel rod has been inserted into the core of a research reactor in tehran. and iranian state tv reported the medium range missile was tested as part of a major naval exercise that has been going on since december 24th .

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