- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

Iran rebuked the United States and its Western partners Sunday by testing a series of short-range rockets, almost as a caveat after days of rancor over Tehran’s acknowledgment that it was building a second facility capable of making fuel for atomic bombs.

Iran also said it tested a multiple rocket launcher for the first time, with its official English-language press broadcasting images of missiles being fired as part of a military drill by a unit of the Revolutionary Guard.

The test missiles were launched within hours of an acknowledgment by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that the U.S. has no permanent military solution to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

“The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time,” Mr. Gates told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“The only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened,” Mr. Gates said.

He added: “While you don’t take options off the table, I think there’s still room left for diplomacy.”

Mr. Gates also said estimates show that Iran, if left unchecked, could produce nuclear weapons within one to three years.

Iran claims it is enriching uranium to fuel power plants. But Mr. Gates said Iran’s disclosure last week of a second uranium-enrichment plant appeared to belie those claims.

Mr. Gates said intelligence agencies from the U.S. and its partners, including the British and French, have been watching the construction of the facility for “at least a couple of years” but waited to go public “to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right.”

He said now there is “no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret.”

“If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there’s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time,” he said.

The site is in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom and is thought to be heavily patrolled by the Revolutionary Guard.

The site is likely to call into question the public summary of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which said that Iran had halted its weapons program, and raise suspicions that the summary was deliberately toned down.

The intelligence estimate defined the activities of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” in the assessment’s footnotes as nuclear weapon design, weaponization work and “covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

The intelligence estimate also revealed that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 that “the revelation of the secret Iranian facility also demonstrates to even the most skeptical people the evil intentions of Iran.”

“The Iran’s ongoing military maneuvers including the last one and all their missile tests are a huge challenge to the international community,” he said.

Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said, “The best option for Iran is regime change, which is what the vast majority of the Iranian people clearly want.”

Henry Sokolski, a member of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, said the missile test “looks like the sort of thing North Korea would do in a fit of frustration.”

“Because of last Friday’s revelations about their covert enrichment plant, it looks like they’ve lost diplomatic leverage to get their way in upcoming nuclear talks to stop sanctions.”

David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said in an interview, “The administration wants to portray this new enrichment plant as part of a nuclear weapons effort. But it is not reconsidering the 2007 NIE that said Iran’s nuclear weapons program had not been restarted.”

“I think these tests had been in the works for a while. But the tests today show that Iran is very determined to develop missile forces and there now has to be greater concern that some of those missiles might be carrying nuclear weapons in the future.”

A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times that Iran’s “intentions to develop short- to medium-range missiles have not changed since the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the material.

“Our views are constantly checked and reassessed,” the official said. “When it comes to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran has made no secret of its desire to expand its capabilities.”

Gen. Hossein Salami, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Air Force, said on Iran state media, “We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner and it doesn’t make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression.”

He said the missiles fired Sunday hit their targets.

Moreover, Gen. Salami said, Iran would test medium-range Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles on Sunday night and longer-range Shahab-3 missiles on Monday during drills set to last several days.

The midrange missiles are capable of hitting all of Israel and surrounding nations throughout the Middle East and southern Russia.

Mr. Gates said that growing public dissent within Iran against the country’s leaders could provide an opportunity for negotiations with the United States and other powers. But he indicated that the next step for the U.S. would be to toughen sanctions.

If diplomacy fails, “then I think you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Their economic problems are difficult enough that I think that severe sanctions would have the potential of bringing them to change their policies.”

On Friday evening, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon privately told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to comply with restrictions on pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran is under three sets of relatively mild sanctions by the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Ban “emphasized that the burden of proof is on Iran,” his office said in a statement Sunday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad responded that his nation was keeping nothing from international inspectors and needn’t “inform Mr. Obama’s administration of every facility that we have.” He said the United States owes him an apology.

When Mr. Gates was asked on “This Week” whether the U.S. would apologize to Mr. Ahmadinejad, he responded flatly, “Not a chance.”

Sarah A. Carter contributed to this report. Betsy Pisik contributed from the United Nations in New York.

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