Iran’s successful test Wednesday of a medium-range solid-fuel missile escalates Tehran’s potential threat to Europe, arms experts and U.S. officials said, and could reopen a debate about stationing U.S. missile defenses on the continent.
The Obama administration called the test a “significant step” toward improving Tehran’s capability to deliver weapons.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface missile’s range most likely was about 1,200 to 1,500 miles, and “it was a successful flight test.”
“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 range,” Mr. Gates told the House Appropriations Committee. “Whether it hit the target that it was intended for, I have not seen any information on that.”
Another U.S. official said Iran had conducted unsuccessful tests in November 2008 and November 2007 of the same missile, which can be launched more quickly and with less warning than a liquid-fuel missile.
“This is the first time they have successfully launched [a solid-fuel missile] of this range,” said the official, who spoke on the condition that she not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The timing of the launch, as the Obama administration seeks negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, may have to do more with Iran’s upcoming presidential elections or technological calendar than deliberate defiance of U.S. overtures. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was showered with rose petals during a public appearance after the launch.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, said he did not think the launch was necessarily connected to Iran’s nuclear program but was “disturbing on its own.”
He said the test might reopen a debate about missile defenses in Europe. The Obama administration has been far less enthusiastic about putting such defenses in Europe than the previous administration, in part because of Russian opposition.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is running for re-election June 12, described the launch as a test of an advanced missile capable of reaching Israel, U.S. bases in the Middle East and parts of Europe.
Hours later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. strategy is to persuade Tehran that it will be less secure, not more, if it develops nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
“A nuclear-armed Iran with a deliverable weapons system is going to spark an arms race in the Middle East and the greater region,” Mrs. Clinton told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “That is not going to be in the interest of Iranian security, and we believe that we have a very strong case to make for that.”
Gary Samore, the top nonproliferation specialist on the National Security Council at the White House, called the Iranian test a “significant technical development.”
“Up to now,” he said, “the Iranian missile force has been based on liquid-fueled systems, which they obtained from North Korea.” In contrast, Wednesday’s missile was based on a “solid propellant system, which apparently they developed on their own” and which is “much easier to move around.”
“I see it as a significant step forward in terms of Iran’s capability to deliver weapons,” Mr. Samore said in a speech before the Arms Control Association (ACA). “Obviously, this is just a test. There is much more work to be done.”
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank, said Russia might have played a role in helping Iran develop solid-fuel technology.
“The Russians a long time ago helped the North Koreans,” he said. “This launch demonstrates again that they are still helping the Iranians. The implications of this is that it is kind of hard to talk about cooperating on Iran if they are helping them with this. These programs make no sense unless you are interested in delivering a nuclear warhead.”
Missile experts said the test did not demonstrate any new capabilities in terms of range.
“It does not add any significant range capability for Iran, since the extended-range Shahab 3 has already been tested to 2,000 kilometers [1,244 miles] and has already been deployed,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at ACA. “Thus, no new countries would be threatened by the new solid-[fueled missile] that are not already threatened.”
Mr. Samore found a silver lining in the news about the missile test.
“It actually helps us in terms of making the case to countries like Russia, which have been skeptical in the past about whether Iran really poses a threat,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to capitalize on the test in order to strengthen the coalition we already have.”
Trita Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, said the test’s timing was significant, coming two days after President Obama’s first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“With Israel pressing for short deadlines for diplomacy followed by sanctions and military action, with Iran testing additional missiles and continuing its tough talk, the Obama administration’s best friend in this process will be patience and endurance,” he said.
A new study by the Rand Corp. commissioned by the U.S. Air Force said Iran seeks missiles in part to compensate for a weak conventional military.
“Iran’s missiles are unlikely to possess the accuracy and payload necessary to pose an operationally meaningful conventional threat to U.S. air operations or most other military activities in the region,” said the report, released earlier this week. It said the missiles were largely intended to deter an attack on Iran.
“Tehran will continue to rely on its ballistic missiles as one of its few tools for maintaining strategic reach and impeding U.S. access to the region and to Iranian territory and airspace,” the report said.
c Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake contributed to this report.