Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Iran Test-Fires Missiles That Put Israel in Range



PARIS — Locked in a deepening dispute with the United States and its allies over its nuclear program, Iran said Monday that its Revolutionary Guards had test-fired missiles with sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf.

“Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran,” a senior Revolutionary Guards official, Abdullah Araqi, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Fars news agency.

The reported tests of the medium-range, liquid-fueled Shahab-3 and the solid-fueled Sejil-2 missiles on Monday, as well as short-range missiles on Sunday, came just days after President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain used the disclosure of a previously secret nuclear processing plant under construction in Iran to threaten Tehran with a stronger response to its efforts to enrich uranium.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but many in the West say it is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration is now working to assemble a package of tougher sanctions, which could include a cutoff of investments to the country’s oil and gas industry as well as restrictions on many more Iranian banks, senior administration officials said Sunday.

The first direct contact in decades between the United States and Iran is scheduled to take place Thursday at international talks in Geneva. Analysts said the launchings might have been intended to give Iranian negotiators the appearance of a stronger hand at the talks.

A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said at a news conference that the missile tests had been planned for some time and were not linked to the nuclear dispute, the state-run, English-language Press TV reported. The report said the tests were part of an effort to improve Iran’s defenses.

Concern about Iranian hostility toward Israel is matched by frequent speculation that Israel might carry out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

Hassan Qashqavi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Monday that the just-disclosed enrichment facility was in Fordo, a village about 115 miles south of Tehran, and 60 miles from Natanz, the site of Iran’s other enrichment plant, The Associated Press reported. That would place it, as United States officials have said, close to the holy city of Qum.

Less than two weeks ago Mr. Obama canceled a plan from the administration of George W. Bush to station a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland as part of what had been described as a shield against potential missile attacks from Iran.

The Obama administration now plans to deploy smaller SM-3 interceptors by 2011, first aboard ships and later in Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic.

On Sunday, Iran test-fired three short-range missiles with a range of 90 to 125 miles as part of a military exercise named the Great Prophet IV, the state-run television said. Press TV said the tests of the Shahab-3 and Sejil-2 on Monday were also part of the exercise.

An “optimized” Shahab-3 missile has a range of 800 to 1,250 miles, it said. The Sejil-2, a two-stage missile, is more sophisticated than the Shahab-3, although it has a similar range. Parts of western Iran lie some 650 miles from Tel Aviv.

Iran first acquired the Shahab-3 from North Korea. Because the Sejil-2 is powered by solid fuel, experts said, it can be stored in mountains, transported, reassembled and fired on shorter notice, and thus could be harder for Israel or other nations to target.

The military exercise and escalating tensions with the West coincide with a period of political uncertainty in Iran, in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed June 12 election.

On Monday a protest erupted at Tehran University, the first of the new school year and the first since the demonstrations that followed the vote, when opponents accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of falsifying results.

The Revolutionary Guards were essential to safeguarding the president’s victory and led the violent crackdown after the election that opposition leaders say killed at least 72 people.

The force, which also runs the country’s missile program, remains close to Mr. Ahmadinejad and accountable only to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Sunday, in a deal that underlined its expanding economic and political power, the Revolutionary Guards purchased just over 50 percent of Iran’s Telecommunication Company in a $7.8 billion deal.

The Revolutionary Guards, in addition to being part of Iran’s military complex, has in recent years become one of the largest conglomerates in the country. It has been awarded more than 750 construction, oil and gas contracts and has its own ports.

Its political influence has also increased, with many of its members elected to Parliament in 2003 or appointed as cabinet ministers in 2004.

Now, the Revolutionary Guards’ hold on the country’s telecommunications systems will give it further control over land-line, Internet and cellphone services. On election day, the country’s text messaging service was cut off; the cellphone network was disconnected during the unrest that followed. Opposition leaders accused the government of misusing state-run services.

The deal announced Sunday was part of the government’s plan to privatize business sectors. But critics have complained that the government is awarding institutions close to it while the real private sector is excluded. The Revolutionary Guards’ unit involved in the deal competed only with a company affiliated with the Basij, a paramilitary organization that assisted the Revolutionary Guards in putting down the postelection protests.

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