- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Iran fired medium-range missiles Monday capable of hitting Israel, U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf and areas of Europe in a further show of defiance before nuclear negotiations Thursday with the United States and other world powers.

Two U.S. counterproliferation officials confirmed Iranian media reports of the tests, which followed an Iranian barrage of short-range rockets on Sunday. The officials spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing intelligence information.

One official said the U.S. was “looking into whether Iran has also test-fired long-range missiles” capable of hitting Europe, but said that “we’re not able to confirm long-range missile tests at this time.”

The disclosure of the tests by Iranian state television followed President Obama’s revelation Friday that Iran is constructing a second facility to enrich uranium on a military base near the Iranian theological center of Qom. Iran is to discuss its nuclear program Thursday with the U.S., China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain in Geneva. The talks will be the first between the Obama administration and Tehran.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the missile tests “preplanned military exercises” and said they fit into a pattern of provocation by the Islamic Republic. He said the U.S. hopes Iran will change course, “engage in full transparency” and “give up its nuclear weapons program.”

“They can continue the path that they’ve been on … or they can make a decision to step away from its nuclear weapons program and enter into a meaningful relationship with the world,” he said.

Mr. Gibbs said agreeing to “immediate, unfettered access” to their nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is “the least that they can do.”

Other Western governments also condemned the Iranian tests as provocative.

France used particularly strong language. The French Foreign Ministry called on Iran “to choose the path of cooperation rather than confrontation, by immediately ceasing these deeply destabilizing activities.”

Russia was more conciliatory. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in New York after meeting with his Iranian counterpart that “It’s necessary to show restraint, and we talked about it as well.”

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which seeks nuclear disarmament, said Iran was imitating North Korean tactics by staging a show of force before negotiations.

“They’re trying to puff themselves up and show that they … cannot be taken lightly,” he said.

Mr. Cirincione said the Iranian government might also be acting for domestic purposes, to reassure its hard-line base that Iran can defend itself against any potential attack and negotiate successfully with Western powers. The regime has been rattled by the disclosure of the second enrichment site as well as continuing protests following disputed June 12 presidential elections.

Iranian state television said that the Revolutionary Guard, an elite force that controls Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, ended two days of war games by successfully testing the Shahab-3 and Sajjil solid-fuel-powered rockets. Both can travel up to 1,200 miles, which would put Israel, U.S. bases in the Middle East and parts of southern Europe within range.

The surface-to-surface Sajjil is a new, two-stage missile using solid fuel, which provides more accurate delivery than liquid-fuel rockets and offers the potential for longer ranges.

“Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran,” said Abdollah Araqi, a top Revolutionary Guard commander, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. His comments were reported by the Associated Press.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi said the tests were routine and planned in advance, the AP added.

Western officials condemned the launches.

“This sends the wrong signal to the international community” in advance of Thursday’s talks, Britain’s Foreign Office said.

Iran previously tested the Sajjil in May.

Barbara Slavin and Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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