- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2008

U.S. and Israeli officials Wednesday said Iran’s test firing of missiles capable of hitting the Jewish state and U.S. interests in the region didn’t demonstrate any new capability, and they dismissed the exercise as saber rattling.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Adm. Morteza Saffari told Arabic state television station Al-Alam Arabic that the military exercises were intended as a show of force against any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The station quoted Brig. Gen. Hoseyn Salami of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps air force as saying, “Our current missile maneuvers are extensive. We have successfully tested our missiles and we have used a wide range of them. … Our missiles are ready to be fired at any time and anywhere.”

The station reported that nine missiles — including Fatah, Zelzal, and Shahab-1, -2 and -3 — were fired in the exercises. The Fatah, Zelzal and Shahab-1 and -2 are short-range missiles. The Shahab-3 can travel up to 930 miles.

Iran claims its longer-range missile can travel up to 1,200 miles, but U.S. officials said they could not confirm that a longer-range missile was tested.

“The Iranian regime only furthers the isolation of the Iranian people from the international community when it engages in this sort of activity,” deputy White House press secretary Gordon Johndroe said from Japan, where President Bush is attending the Group of Eight summit. “They should also refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the tests “evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one.”

“Those who say that there is no Iranian missile threat against which we should build a missile defense system perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about their claims,” Miss Rice said while traveling in Sofia, Bulgaria.

On Tuesday, Miss Rice and Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg signed a deal allowing the U.S. to base a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that the tests highlight the need for missile defenses in Europe.

“There is a real threat,” he said. “And it seems to me that the test this morning underscores that.”

Mr. Gates said the Iranian missile tests should erase doubts raised by the Russian government that “the Iranians won’t have a longer-range ballistic missile for 10 to 20 years.”

“The fact is, they’ve just tested a missile that has a pretty extended range,” Mr. Gates said.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said the tests demonstrate a need for effective missile defense.

His Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said the tests highlight the need for direct diplomacy as well as tougher threats of economic sanctions and strong incentives to persuade Tehran to change its behavior.

The missile tests were part of Iranian military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the United States is concerned that Iran could block strategic shipping through the strait, at the south end of the Persian Gulf, where 20 percent to 40 percent of the world’s oil passes.

A large-scale Israeli air force exercise in the Mediterranean reported last month was interpreted as practice for a bombing run on Iran’s nuclear sites.

The United States and Europe fear Tehran’s once-clandestine nuclear program is developing weapons that can be used against Israel or other enemies in the region. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, acted on behalf of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany to offer Tehran a package of economic incentives to discontinue its nuclear program. Negotiations continue.

Officials in Iran say the nuclear program is designed to produce only electricity, not weapons.

Ali Shirazi, a representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran´s supreme leader, said Tuesday that Tehran would target “Tel Aviv and the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf” if it is attacked.

“I think it’s part of the ongoing psychological warfare between the two sides,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based analyst and co-author of the book “The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran.”

“The Iranians feel that the recent maneuvers by Israel were aimed at intimidating them into accepting Javier Solana’s offer. By firing the missile, they signal that they play the same game, too, and they won’t be beaten to it.”

Israeli defense officials said the missile tests produced no major surprises and appeared to be more of an exercise in psychological warfare than a breakthrough in military technology.

“Israel does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. “But it is clear that the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program is a matter of grave concern.”

Israeli officials said the launch highlighted how Iran’s threat to Israel extends to the international community. Although Israel has sought to enlist the international community to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions, many are starting to worry that international sanctions on Iran aren’t sufficient.

“By and large, there is a clear path of escalation, and the window of time is closing,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert maintains a tenuous hold on power and President Bush is due to leave office in January. “There’s a sense that there will be big decisions taken in the front because of the end of the Bush presidency, the tail end of Olmert’s tenure.”

“The choice now is increasingly either accepting a nuclear Iran or a confrontation with Iran. Iran is being perceived as having an effective policy against the U.S. and Israel across the Middle East.”

  • Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv and Bill Gertz reported from Washington for this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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