President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran test-fired a new advanced missile Wednesday with a range of about 1,200 miles, capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.
The announcement comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election and just two days after President Barack Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Tehran if it did not respond positively by year-end to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that Iran conducted the successful ballistic missile test.
U.S. officials had said as much earlier Wednesday, but without putting their names to the information. Gates was asked about the reports during congressional testimony.
He said that the successful test involved a missile with a range of approximately 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers. He said that because of chronic engine problems, the range is probably on the lower end of that scale.
Gates says he cannot say whether the test missile hit its intended target.
Analysts said the launch was likely intended for domestic consumption ahead of the June 12 elections, rather than a message to the United States, which has criticized Iran's 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.
Clinton warns of ‘arms race’
In an appearance Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations panel, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not comment directly on the launch, but did say that a nuclear-armed Iran would “spark an arms race.”
Clinton reiterated that the Obama administration opposed Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability and that it was relying for now on diplomatic pressure to stop it.
Clinton described a nuclear capability as an "extraordinary threat" and said that the U.S. goal is "to persuade the Iranian regime that they will actually be less secure if they proceed with their nuclear weapons program."
A more accurate missile?
Iran said the solid-fuel Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface missile 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 future 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.
Criticism for Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad is running for re-election and has been criticized by his opponents and others for antagonizing the United States and mismanaging the country's faltering economy. Iran said Wednesday that its constitutional watchdog has approved three prominent candidates to challenge Ahmadinejad, setting up a showdown between reformists and hard-liners.
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 United States 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.
Skepticism of Iranian claims
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 United States 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.
Intense internal battle
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.
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.