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Iran leader announces successful missile test

Iran’s president announced the successful test launch of an advanced surface-to-surface solid-fuel missile Wednesday that could reach Israel and other potential targets across the Middle East.

Iranian state television showed the blue rocket rising from a sunny desert, surrounded by the red, white and green flags of the Islamic Republic.

Iran has long had missiles that could reach Israel and the Persian Gulf states where the U.S. maintains several bases. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that the new Sejil-2 incorporates “advanced technology” that makes it more accurate than Iran’s arsenal of Shahab missiles, which are based on North Korean-designed rockets.

The two-stage missile has a range of 1,200 miles, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said. Iran’s single-stage liquid-fueled Shahab-3 has the same range. But experts say solid-fuel double-stage rockets are more accurate.

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In addition, they say, solid fuel is more stable, meaning it can be stored longer and moved more easily. Solid propellant may also allow Iran to bypass the fueling cycles needed for liquid-fueled rockets, speeding up the launch sequence.

“The defense minister contacted me and said . . . ‘With divine intervention and the assistance of the Lord of the Age, the Sejil-2 rocket, which has very advanced technology, was launched from Semnan province,’ ” Ahmadinejad told a crowd of supporters in the rural northern province, where he was campaigning ahead of June 12 elections. “ ‘It hit the target exactly.’ ”

In Washington, Obama administration officials said the test demonstrated that Iran had made progress in its efforts to develop a solid-fuel missile with a longer range than its older, Shahab series rockets.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the launch as “a successful flight test” of a missile with a range between 1,200 and 1,500 miles. “Because of some of the problems they’ve had with their engines, we think at least at this stage of the testing it’s probably closer to the lower end of that,” Gates said during testimony before a panel of the House Appropriations Committee.

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Tehran and the West are at odds over Iran’s nuclear development program and its refinement of missile technology, which the U.S., Israel and many other nations believe are the cornerstones of an eventual nuclear weapons program. Hours after Ahmadinejad’s speech, the French Foreign Ministry said it viewed the announcement of the rocket launch with “great concern.”

Iran insists that its nuclear program is meant for peaceful civilian purposes only. Officials say their nation’s missile program is meant to defend it in the face of threats by Israeli officials to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to protect the Jewish state, which fears the creation of weaponry by Iran that could be used against it. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction.

A March 16 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested that Israel could overcome the political complications of flying fighter jets and bombers over third-country airspace to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by instead firing ballistic missiles at the sites.

A report published Tuesday by a U.S. think tank said Iran was technologically at least six years away from developing a deliverable nuclear missile, though it could create a nuclear device within a year if it kicked out international inspectors, withdrew from its treaty obligations and further refined its enriched uranium.

Ahmadinejad’s rocket announcement upstaged news that the Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists, had approved the candidacies of three powerful rivals against him in the upcoming presidential vote.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the military exercise may have been an effort by Ahmadinejad to bolster his defiant reputation ahead of the poll.

“He wants to divert public attention away from his economic failings and portray himself as a strong leader,” Sadjadpour said. “I’m sure Ahmadinejad was hoping for a stronger U.S. reaction which could keep the attention focused on this issue, but the Obama team has so far been wise enough not to take the bait.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.


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