By William Branigin, Thomas Erdbrink and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009 2:14 PM
Iran reported Monday that it successfully test-fired its most advanced and powerful medium-range missiles as part of war games it said were intended to deter the country's enemies.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps tested the Shahab-3 and Sejil missiles in the third phase of a two-day exercise called The Great Prophet IV, state-run news media reported. The missiles are believed to be capable of striking Israel, U.S. military targets in the Middle East and parts of southeastern Europe.
But Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, said the test-firings were part of exercises to practice "preventive and defensive operations." They are "in no way a threat to neighboring countries," Iranian news media quoted him as saying. Rather, the tests send "a message for certain greedy nations that seek to create fear, to show that we are able to give a swift and suitable answer to our enemies."
"The armed forces of the Islamic Republic are now more powerful than ever and fully prepared to foil foreign threats," said Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, military adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Specifically, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi warned Israel against carrying out threats to attack Iran's nuclear sites.
"If this happens, which of course we do not foresee, its ultimate result would be that it expedites the Zionist regime's last breath," Vahidi said on state television. He added that Israel was on a "slope of destruction."
Iran's Foreign Ministry denied that there was any connection between the missile tests and a dispute with the United States and other nations over a newly disclosed underground uranium enrichment plant that U.S. officials suspect is intended to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. A Foreign Ministry spokesman described the exercises as routine and said they were planned long before the latest nuclear controversy, which is scheduled to be discussed Thursday at a meeting in Geneva between representatives of Iran and six major powers, including the United States. Iran has repeatedly denied that it has any intention of producing nuclear weapons.
At a conference Monday of European Union defense ministers in Sweden, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana called on Iran to immediately resolve issues surrounding the new enrichment facility near Qom and said the missile tests also have raised concerns.
According to Iran's Press TV, the "optimized Shahab-3" missile that was tested early Monday has a range of 1,300 to 2,000 kilometers (807 to 1,242 miles). It did not give a range or precise designation for the Sejil missile that also was reportedly test-fired but said it was a "two-stage missile powered by solid fuel which was tested by the [Revolutionary Guard Corps] for the first time in the maneuver." Press TV said both missiles "accurately hit their designated targets."
In May, however, Press TV reported a successful firing of the Sejil-2 surface-to-surface missile, which it said was first tested eight months earlier. It said that unlike the Shahab-3, which has liquid fuel, the Sejil-2 uses solid fuel, making it faster to prepare for launch. It also said the Sejil-2 is more accurate than the Shahab-3, an older missile based on the Soviet-designed Scud.
Iran also reported Monday that it has equipped its Shahab missiles with new warheads capable of destroying multiple targets simultaneously and that it is now capable of firing missiles from mobile launchers.
The medium-range missiles were fired from the central province of Semnan where Iran's rocket and space programs are located.
In the initial phase of the war games, the Revolutionary Guard Corps announced Sunday that it had test-fired a number of short-range missiles.
"Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran," top Revolutionary Guard commander Abdollah Araqi told the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Salami, the Revolutionary Guard Air Force chief, said Iranian experts had increased the range of the tested missiles, updated their technical and navigation systems and reduced their launch times. It was not immediately possible to verify the claims. During a similar exercise last year, the Revolutionary Guards doctored pictures of a failed missile launch.
Amid growing international pressure in advance of Thursday's highly anticipated talks on Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, senior Obama administration officials said they had the international support necessary to impose crippling sanctions if Tehran does not stop construction on its 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.
In Tehran, however, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi spoke out Monday against any sanctions, saying they would force ordinary people to pay the price of the "wrong and adventurist foreign policies of the government." In a statement posted on a Web site affiliated with him, Mousavi said: "Sanctions will cause great pain to many people for whom the plight of being ruled by paranoid statesmen is enough." A former prime minister, Mousavi has emerged as the leading political foe of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following a disputed presidential election in June.
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.
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 Sunday 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 also has 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 considered 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."
Erdbrink reported from Tehran. Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.