By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009 8:40 AM
SEMNAN, Iran, May 20 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday that his country had successfully test-fired a medium-range solid-fuel missile apparently capable of striking Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf region.
U.S. officials confirmed the launch, while arms-control experts debated its significance. Several described it as evidence of continuing progress in Iran's missile program, if not a breakthrough. Iran fired a similar missile last year.
Iran's ability to build a solid-fuel rocket suggests an increasing sophistication in its missile program, because solid fuel offers advantages over Iran's previous liquid-fuel program, several experts said. For one thing, liquid-fuel rockets are more vulnerable to preemptive strikes because it takes hours or even days to fuel them. Solid-fuel rockets can be launched faster and are more mobile, the experts said.
The missile was launched from a site in Semnan province, where Iran's missile and space programs are headquartered and Ahmadinejad was born. Ahmadinejad visited the province Wednesday as part of a series of trips by government officials to Iran's 30 provinces ahead of the June 12 presidential election.
Reporters touring with Ahmadinejad saw corkscrews of smoke on the horizon near the Alborz mountain range early Wednesday. Hours later, Ahmadinejad announced the news to a crowd of thousands of people gathered for a speech in the city of Semnan. He said the missile struck its intended target, but he did not specify where the target was.
"The rocket went into space, returned to Earth and hit its target," Ahmadinejad said to raucous cheers in a soccer stadium lined with posters bearing his image.
The crowd of men and women, separated by sex according to Shiite Muslim tenets, repeatedly chanted "Ahmadinejad, we love you!" and "Ahmadinejad, we will vote for you!" during his 45-minute speech, which was aired live on Iranian television.
Ahmadinejad said the test was an important scientific achievement and a blow to those trying to thwart Iran's development with weapons and threats.
"We send them a message: Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is running the show," Ahmadinejad said in his speech. "We say to the superpowers, 'Who of you dare to threaten the Iranian nation? Raise your hand!' But they all stand there with their hands behind their backs."
Gary Samore, the top White House counterproliferation official, said the missile was "a significant step forward in terms of Iran's capability to deliver weapons."
But some experts said the missile was a new version of an existing missile that was successfully tested late last year and has a range of about 1,200 miles.
"The last launch, in November, didn't work as well, so here we have what appears to be a series of tests to try to master the technology and make it better," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"The implication of solid fuel is that you can slap it onto a truck or put it in a cave and drive it around," said Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the nuclear strategy nonproliferation initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington.
According to the Iranian government, the missile showed another technical development: It was in two stages, rather than one. For years, the Iranians simply built bigger and bigger one-stage rockets, which came to be nicknamed "Scuds on steroids," said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. But a two-stage rocket can go farther, because it jettisons some of its weight as it flies. A country has to develop a two-stage system in order to build intercontinental ballistic missile systems.
Samore said the launch might strengthen the coalition of countries that has been trying to restrain Iran's nuclear program.
"It actually helps us make the case to countries like Russia which have been skeptical in the past" of the danger of Iran's weapons programs, Samore told a lunch of the Arms Control Association.
Iran's nuclear program was the top priority for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he visited President Obama at the White House for the first time Monday.
Israel said after the launch Wednesday that Europe and the United States should share Israel's goal of stopping Iran's missile program. "In terms of strategic importance, this new missile test doesn't change anything for us since the Iranians already tested a missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers, but it should worry the Europeans," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Israel Radio. "If anybody had a doubt, it is clear the Iranians are playing with fire."
Ayalon said Israel believes that Iran is also trying to develop a ballistic missile with a range of 6,250 miles, which could reach the United States.
Obama acknowledged Monday that there is "deepening concern" in the global community about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the White House is pushing Israel, which receives nearly $3 billion in annual military aid from the United States and has its own undeclared nuclear arsenal, to focus on better relations with its Arab neighbors as a way to step up international pressure on Iran.
Obama said Monday that he would wait until after Iran's presidential election next month to directly engage its leaders. Obama said he should know by the end of the year whether talks and international pressure are dissuading Iran's leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons.
After announcing the missile launch, Ahmadinejad denounced sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in an effort to pressure it not to build nuclear weapons.
"These are the hardest sanctions ever to be placed on a country. They can give us resolutions until their resolution-making machine breaks down," Ahmadinejad said. "All want dialogue with Iran, and we prefer this. But it should be in the framework of justice and respect."
Staff writers Joby Warrick and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington and correspondent Howard Schneider in Jerusalem contributed to this report.