With U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and the rhetoric between Iran and Israel growing more heated, Tehran on Wednesday test-fired nine missiles, including at least one capable of striking Israel and other American allies and interests in the Middle East.
The medium- and long-range missiles were launched during military exercises staged by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard near the strategic oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. State television quoted a top military leader, Gen. Hossein Salami, as saying the war games in the Persian Gulf would “demonstrate our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was traveling in Bulgaria, said the launches constituted “evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one.”
The tests were the latest drama in the long standoff over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which Tehran says will produce power for civilian use but the West and Israel allege is aimed at building a bomb.
The missiles streaked into the desert sky as U.S. and British ships were on military maneuvers in the gulf and just days after disclosures that Israel had conducted long-range military exercises last month widely seen as a rehearsal for a possible strike against Iran.
Iranian TV showed three simultaneous launches, one of a new version of the Shahab-3 missile, which Tehran says carries a 1-ton conventional warhead and can travel 1,250 miles, well within the range of U.S. troops in Iraq, the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain and American allies Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Iran said this week that it would retaliate against U.S. and Israeli interests in the region if its nuclear facilities were attacked.
“Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch,” Salami was quoted as saying Wednesday by the official IRNA news agency. Iranian news media reported the missiles were fired from an undisclosed location in the desert.
The launches came a day after seemingly contradictory statements from top Iranian officials. A spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, said Tel Aviv and the U.S. fleet in the gulf would “burst into flames” if Tehran were attacked. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his strident rhetoric, appeared to soften the atmosphere by saying that the prospect of Israel and the U.S. striking Iran was a “funny joke” and that there “won’t be any war.”
“The Iranian regime only furthers the isolation of the Iranian people from the international community when it engages in this sort of activity,” said Gordon Johndroe, deputy White House press secretary, speaking from Japan, where President Bush attended the Group of 8 summit that concluded Wednesday.
He said that if the Iranians wanted to gain the world’s trust they should immediately “stop the development of ballistic missiles, which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon.”
U.S. military officials said the test demonstrated Iran’s long-range missile capability, but they were still trying to determine whether it showed advances in the country’s weaponry.
“The fact is, they’ve just tested a missile that has a pretty extended range,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said. But he added that he did not know whether it showed any new capability.
Last week, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that an Israeli airstrike against Iran would add to instability in the Middle East and increase stress on overworked U.S. forces in the region.
Gates said Wednesday that Israel and Iran recognized the dangers of a military conflict.
“The reality is that there is a lot of signaling going on, but I think everybody recognizes what the consequences of any kind of a conflict would be,” Gates said. He emphasized that Washington remained committed to a diplomatic and economic approach to resolving tensions in the area.
“At this point, I’m comfortable that that remains the case,” Gates said.
Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, portrayed the tests as a continuation of two earlier rounds extending back to 2006.
Asked whether, with the Israeli air force exercises, tensions are rising, he said, “It’s not as though tension is new to the Middle East and the region.”
Iran’s actions also were quickly addressed by U.S. presidential candidates. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama called on Washington to work with its allies “to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with the Iranian regime backed by tougher unilateral and multilateral sanctions.” He said Iran “poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States in the region in a generation.”
Republican Sen. John McCain said: “Iran’s missile tests also demonstrate the need for effective missile defense now and in the future, and this includes missile defense in Europe as is planned with the Czech Republic and Poland. Working with our European and regional allies is the best way to meet the threat posed by Iran, not unilateral concessions that undermine multilateral diplomacy.”
Israel’s reaction to the test was low key. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last month ordered his ministers not to address the subject after one of them, Shaul Mofaz, set off an international uproar by saying Israel would have “no choice” but to attack Iran if it didn’t halt its nuclear program. Olmert’s statements since have emphasized Israel’s preference for a diplomatic solution.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Jerusalem “does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran.”
“But it is clear that the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program is a matter of grave concern,” he said.
On a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, “These are very dangerous missiles. That’s why the international community and not just Israel has an interest in blocking this escalation in a definitive way.”
Tehran and the West are expected to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear program this month. But there has been little apparent progress.
Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham, an Ahmadinejad loyalist, Saturday reiterated Iran’s long-standing position that it wouldn’t stop producing nuclear material, a highly technical process that involves running uranium gas through centrifuges. The uranium enriched to a lower quality can be used as fuel for civilian power plants; highly enriched material can be made into nuclear weapons.
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem, Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.