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U.S. Won’t Halt Drive for Iran Ties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States moved quickly Thursday to prevent troubling developments in Iran, including the test-launch of a medium-range missile and the imposition of a stiff prison sentence on a leading reformer, from derailing efforts to open a dialogue with Tehran.

Despite the disturbing implications of the new missile, which has the potential to strike targets throughout the Middle East, the harsh sentence meted out to Tehran’s reformist mayor and the execution of a member of the Bahai faith for trying to convert a Muslim, U.S. officials said they hope to keep their efforts at detente with Iran on track.

The White House said U.S. intelligence is “actively monitoring” Iran’s growing military capability in response to Wednesday’s missile test, but Clinton administration officials played down the threat that it poses to the region or American forces in the Persian Gulf.

“This is the first test. Additional time is normally required to bring missiles into serious production and operational status,” a senior White House official said. “For this reason, it’s premature to say that it poses an immediate threat to any nation in the region or U.S. forces.”

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U.S. intelligence personnel detected Iran’s test of the Shehab 3 missile. It has an 800-mile range and could target Iran’s neighbors in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, South Asia, Russia, Turkey and--perhaps most troubling--Israel.

The Shehab is similar to North Korea’s No Dong missile, first tested in 1993. Tehran has been working with North Korea and Russia for years to acquire technology and adapt other countries’ missiles for its own use, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.

The Shehab was fired from a base southwest of Tehran but exploded before reaching its full trajectory farther south, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence was uncertain whether the missile blew up accidentally or was detonated after its performance was proven.

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Despite the ominous implications for the region, a single missile test “does not change the balance of power,” Mike McCurry, White House press secretary, hastened to point out. Nor will it affect President Clinton’s efforts at detente with the Islamic Republic, as outlined in a major policy address by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on June 17, U.S. officials said.

“U.S. policy is still on course. This test only underscores the need for dialogue,” a senior administration official said. “It is the reason that one of the first topics we will raise forcefully, if and when we have a dialogue, will be weapons of mass destruction and why they are not the best way to secure Iran’s interests in the region.”

Wednesday’s missile test was not unexpected. In January, CIA Director George J. Tenet told members of Congress that he had revised his agency’s earlier estimate that Iran would not achieve medium-range missile capability for another decade. “Iran’s success in gaining technology and materials from Russian companies, combined with recent indigenous Iranian advances, means that it could have a medium-range missile much sooner,” Tenet said then. The CIA privately forecast an initial test by the end of this year, U.S. officials said.

But senior U.S. and Israeli official predicted Thursday that it would take Iran years to field a missile force. “It’ll still be a long time, probably many years, before Iran’s missile will be a threat to any of our allies,” a senior administration official said.

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Iran also is very unlikely to be able to “weaponize” a missile with chemical or nuclear material, a U.S. official said. Iran’s nuclear program is still in an early stage, and Tehran lacks the ability to fit its missiles with the deadliest warheads.

Even Israeli officials said they did not regard the test as an immediate threat to their security, though they expressed concern about its long-term implications. “If I read the publicized information correctly, this is not a missile that can reach Israel,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told Israel Radio. “But the very fact of the test-launch of long-range missiles by Iran is grave and constitutes an acute threat that is developing in the Middle East, and that could be used, God forbid, against Israel as well.”

At this stage, Iran’s motives appear to be defensive, U.S. and Israeli experts said. It is not believed to have any active targets in mind, they said, and there have been no diplomatic crises since Iran’s new reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, undertook a policy of rapprochement with his Gulf neighbors.

“Missiles are first of all a deterrent. They are meant to deter Israel against such a possible move such as attacking Iranian nuclear sites,” said Yiftah Shapir, an arms expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

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After a devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained on Iranian cities and chemical weapons were used on Iranian civilians, Tehran has sought to develop weapons to discourage use of the deadliest arms by its neighbors. “Iran feels vulnerable because it has been the target of aggression. It also lives in an unstable neighborhood,” said Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at Virginia’s George Mason University and author of the book, “The Reign of the Ayatollahs.”

Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, India, Israel, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen already have short- or intermediate-range missiles capable of striking neighbor states, said Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration Mideast specialist now at the Nixon Center for Peace and Justice.

Several regional forces, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, also have aircraft capable of striking targets at distances equal to or greater than the range of missiles.

“Iran wants to be able to say to countries that might target it: ‘We can harm you too,’ ” Bakhash said.

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The Clinton administration, for its part, appeared more alarmed by internal political developments in Iran than by the missile test. U.S. officials and Iran experts expressed concern about what they viewed as the severe sentence imposed on the Tehran mayor, a Khatami ally convicted of corruption. The sentence, they said, appeared to signal widespread opposition by religious conservatives to the policies advocated by Khatami’s reform government.

The State Department also disclosed the execution of an Iranian citizen on charges of attempting to convert a Muslim to the Bahai faith, an act illegal under Iranian law. Rubin said the United States condemned the execution because the defendant had not been accorded due process of law.

About 200 Bahais have been executed since the revolution, but this is the first since 1992.

Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Missile’s Range

This week, Iran successfully tested a missile that reportedly has a range of 800 miles and could hit Israel, Saudi Arabia or U.S. forces in the region. It is believed that Iran also is building another version of the missile, which is expected to have a range of up to 1,240 miles.

SHEHAB 3

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Type: medium range

Range: about 800 miles

Payload: 1,547 lbs.

Length: 32.8 ft.

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Intelligence experts investigating the launch believe Iran brought the missile from North Korea.

Source: Jane’s Defense Information


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