By Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 28, 2009
Amid growing international pressure in advance of highly anticipated talks this week, Iran displayed its defiance of Western threats against its nuclear program by announcing Sunday that it had test-fired at least two short-range missiles. Senior Obama administration officials, meanwhile, said they had the international support necessary to impose crippling sanctions if Tehran does not stop construction on a new uranium-enrichment plant and allow immediate inspections.
"There is obviously the opportunity for severe additional sanctions" after disclosures two days ago by the United States, Britain and France of the secret Iranian facility beneath the mountains near the city of Qom, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said as reports emerged of the Iranian test launches.
The missile firings are not directly related to Iran's nuclear weapons program, and the tests apparently were planned before Friday's disclosures by President Obama and the European leaders. But Tehran used what it said was a military drill in the central Iranian desert to underscore its rejection of international efforts to halt its nuclear program, which it contends is intended for the peaceful production of electricity.
"We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner, and it doesn't make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression," Gen. Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, said, according to Iranian state media.
Gates said all options remained on the table for dealing with Iran. But, he said, "the reality is, there is no military option that does nothing more than buy time" in preventing what the United States has said is Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons capability. "The only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened."
Revelations about the new facility, which officials have said could be ready in 2010 to produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear bomb a year, did not change the overall U.S. assessment that Iran could produce a warhead within one to three years, he said.
"I think there is still room left for diplomacy," Gates said in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union," referring to a meeting scheduled for Thursday between Iran and members of the negotiating group, comprising the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. "The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all the great powers."
In a separate interview broadcast on CBS's "Face the Nation," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration believed that Russia, which previously objected to harsher sanctions against Iran, was now moving in Washington's direction. "I think Russia has begun to see many more indications that Iran is engaging in threatening behavior," Clinton said in the interview, which was taped Friday.
"The Iranians keep insisting, no, no, this is just for peaceful purposes," she said. "Well, I think, as the Russians said in their statement, and as we believe, and what this meeting on October 1st is to test, is, fine, prove it, don't assert it, prove it."
Russia has also expressed satisfaction with the Obama administration's decision, announced early this month, to revise its missile defense program and cancel plans to install interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration said new intelligence indicated that Iran's program to produce the long-range missiles the system was designed to combat was less advanced than believed. A new system outlined by the administration would protect against medium- and short-range missiles.
Iran's strategy for almost a decade has been to publicize its short- and medium-range missile development programs while covertly pursuing a capability to produce a nuclear weapon, according intelligence analysts. Sunday's test announcement fit into that pattern.
"Missiles are for [Iranians] what both tactical and strategic air power are for the West," said Uzi Rubin, an Israeli engineer considered by U.S. intelligence analysts to be an expert on Middle East missile programs. The Iranians "are transparent. They want to deter any U.S. or Israeli attack [and] Iranian leaders openly wish for U.S. satellites to take pictures of their weapons sites and to see their capability," Rubin said in an interview Sept. 17 with Iran Watch, a Web site maintained by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
For years, U.S. intelligence has viewed Iran's military programs as directed primarily to meet what Tehran considers regional threats from neighbors such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Israel, aided by the United States. Nine years ago, the CIA's Robert Walpole, an expert on missiles, said what has remained the primary intelligence community view: "Tehran sees its short- and medium-range missiles not only as deterrents but also as force-multiplying weapons of war."
"Militarily, Iran continues to strengthen the three pillars of its strategic deterrence: surface-to-surface missiles, long-range rockets and aircraft for retaliation," Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. But Blair went on to describe as "exaggerations" Iran's public statements about its ballistic missile capabilities.
A new U.S. intelligence community assessment completed in May and disclosed Sept. 17 said that Iran's development of an intercontinental ballistic missile has slowed but that its short-range, medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile programs have grown more rapidly than previously projected.
"What we have seen with the Iranians is that they're producing and deploying significant numbers of short and intermediate missiles," Gates said at the time of the new assessment.
Rubin, who was in charge of Israel's successful Arrow missile defense system, said that "the Iranians believe in conventional missiles" and that the country "will use its missiles if it is attacked." He noted Iran has developed "bomblet warheads," ones that carry smaller explosives that are spread over an area. The United States has a variety of such weapons.
Although Iran has slowed down its ICBM program, the large, liquid-fueled rocket that launched Iran's first satellite in space in February was what Rubin called a "souped-up" version of its medium-range Shahab-3 missile. He said that two-stage missile could carry the weight of a nuclear device but that Iran's newest warhead, because of its shape and the volume it can carry, "is not a move toward accommodating a nuclear warhead."