ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Iran test-fired the latest version of its longest-range missile today, sending a message of defiance as pressure mounts on Tehran over its nuclear program.
The test came a day after the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved tougher sanctions legislation against Iran.
Iran state TV showed the green-painted Sajjil-2 missile launching from a desert pad, its exhaust cloud at lift-off swallowing up Iranian flags planted in the ground. The countdown to the launch was completed with three chants of “Alahu Akbar!” or “God is great.”
Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said the two-stage missile served as a “strong deterrent” against attack. Speaking on Iranian state TV, he said the missile’s “very high speed” made it “impossible to destroy.” English-language PressTV reported that the missile “hit the defined target” and was part of Iran’s “deterrent strategy [that] serves peace and security and is not a threat to regional stability.”
But a very different message was received in Washington: “At a time when the international community has offered Iran opportunities to begin to build trust and confidence, Iran’s missile tests only undermine claims of peaceful intentions,” said White House spokesman Mike Hammer.
Analysts and politicians took the Iranian launch of the solid-fuel Sajjil-2 missile (sometimes called the “Sejil-2”) with a 1,200-mile range – which can reach all of the Middle East and parts of Europe – as the latest twist in the strategic stand-off between Iran and the West, especially over its nuclear ambitions.
“Iran’s modus operandi is to react proactively when being pressured, because they want to show the outside world that pressure is not going to moderate their behavior – in fact it’s going to make it worse,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. “The practical impact is that it further erodes the confidence of Europeans, and increasingly the Russians and Chinese, that the Iranian government is amenable to some type of diplomatic compromise,” he says.
Iran has been accused in the past of timing its missile tests to signal it is digging in its heels over nuclear negotiations.
The Sajjil-2 missile program, which according to Globalsecurity.org has had at least 5 successful test launches since 2008, has been closely monitor by the US.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the missile test bolstered the argument for more sanctions against Iran: “This is a matter of serious concern to the international community and it does make the case for us moving further on sanctions,” he said in Copenhagen.
France said the test sent a “very bad signal” from Iran; Germany called it an “alarming” development that would not build trust. Both countries are pushing for heavier sanctions against Iran.
“Those missiles don’t reach the United States, they reach Europe,” says Mr. Sadjadpour. “If Iran were smart, they would try to create divisions within the international community, rather than uniting nations against it.”
The launch came a day after the US House of Representatives voted 412-12 on Tuesday to give President Barack Obama the power to block companies from providing Iran with critical refined petroleum products, and from improving Iran’s ability to produce its own.
The measure has yet to pass the Senate, but adds up to what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned months ago could be “crippling sanctions” against Iran if it did not comply with UN Security Council resolutions to freeze its nuclear programs.
Iran insists its nuclear efforts are solely to make nuclear power; many Western capitals believe that Iran’s civilian program masks an intention to build a nuclear bomb. Doubts about Iran’s intentions rose further on fresh reports in recent days – and so far unverified in public by the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency – that Iranian scientists have been secretly working since 2007 on a triggering mechanism that could only suit a nuclear device.
Iranian officials said any new sanctions would have little impact. “They cannot succeed,” Hojjatollah Ghanimifard, a senior official of the state National Iranian Oil Company, told Reuters. “We have a long list of suppliers of gasoline.”
Though Iran is the fifth-largest oil exporter and earned billions in surplus cash during the boom in oil prices in recent years, little was reinvested to expand Iran’s small refining capacity. Iran imports as much as 40 percent of the gasoline it uses
Iran is still deadlocked over a nuclear swap deal offered by the world powers and accepted by Iran last October, that would have resulted in the bulk of Iran’s low-enriched uranium being moved out of the country in exchange for fuel for a research reactor.
Iran has sent back mixed messages, but this week – even as exasperation grew in Washington and the push for new sanctions began anew – senior Iranian officials said they are willing to do the swap, but on altered terms.
Yet more contentious issues include the sentencing of an Iranian citizen by a US federal judge to five years in prison. Amir Hossein Ardebili was an Iranian procurement official lured out of Iran to Georgia by US agents in a 2007 sting operation, then secretly extradited to the US where he has been held ever since.
On the Iranian side, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Monday that three Americans who crossed into northern Iran from Iraq last July had “suspicious” motives, and so would be tried in court. The families of the three say they were on a holiday and accidentally strayed across the border into Iran while hiking.
Besides those three, US officials have also pressed Iran to release dual US-Iranian citizen Kian Tajbakhsh, an academic and urban planner sentenced to at least 12 years in prison after the June 2009 post-election unrest in Iran.