TEHRAN, Iran – Iran conducted missile tests Monday as its leadership stepped up warnings of possible military confrontation with the United States. Hard-liners said an American attack would spark "hell" for the U.S. and Israel, with some threatening suicide attacks against U.S. forces.
The drum-beating suggests Iran does not intend to back down as tensions mount on both fronts of its confrontation with the United States and the West — the nuclear issue and the turmoil in neighboring Iraq.
Iran's leaders have increasingly touted the possibility of a U.S. attack since President George W. Bush announced on Jan. 9 the deployment of a second aircraft carrier in the Gulf region, a move U.S. officials have said is a show of strength directed at Iran.
The leadership's warnings could aim to rally the public behind the government and silence increasingly bold criticism of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home. Iranian reformers and conservatives have accused him of hurting Iran with his virulent anti-US rhetoric in the nuclear standoff with the West, while failing to repair Iran's weakening economy.
In a significant move, a paper close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday joined the voices threatening retaliation for any U.S. military action — suggesting the highest levels are involved in ringing the alarm over the American deployment.
The top editor of the Keyhan daily warned that Iran will turn the Middle East into "hell" if America takes military action against Iran.
"The U.S. military is within our range both on the east and the west," Hossein Shariatmadari wrote. "With missiles fired from Iran, Israel will turn into a scorching hell for the Zionists."
Shariatmadari, who was named to his post by Khamenei, also warned that Iran could block oil through the strategic Hormuz Strait at the mouth of the Gulf if the U.S. initiates a war.
The Iranian military on Monday began five days of maneuvers near the northern city of Garmsar, about 62 miles southeast of Tehran, state television reported. The military tested its Zalzal-1 and Fajr-5 missiles, the TV reported.
The Zalzal-1, able to carry a 1,200 pound payload, has a range of 200 miles, making it able to hit anywhere in Iraq or U.S. bases in the Gulf as well as into eastern Saudi Arabia. The Fajr-5, with a 1,800 pound payload, has a range of 35 miles.
Neither could reach Israel, but Iran is known to have missiles that can. It is not known if either missile tested Monday is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The Iranian show of strength came as the American aircraft carrier USS Stennis was heading toward the Gulf region, joining the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in a beefed-up American military presence. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February. The U.S. is also deploying Patriot missiles and nuclear submarines to the Persian Gulf and F16 fighter planes to the Incirlik base in neighboring Turkey.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the buildup aimed to impress on Iran that the four-year war in Iraq has not made America vulnerable.
The U.S. accuses Iran of backing militants fueling Iraq's violence and has vowed to cut off its support. Washington and its allies also accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, an allegation Tehran denies, insisting it only wants to produce energy.
In Iran, the U.S. buildup has sparked loud warnings from officials that the United States will attack. U.S. officials have long refused to rule out any options in the faceoff with Tehran, but say military action would be a last resort.
On Thursday, Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, appeared on state television saying the Americans "have made their decision to attack Iran" — possibly in late February or early March.
Iran's military has been put on high alert in reaction to the possibility of a U.S. attack, a military official told the Associated Press. The official did not elaborate on what high alert entails. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the press.
The hardline daily newspaper Hezbollah warned of suicide attacks against American targets if the U.S. attacks.
"We have tens of thousands of volunteers who have registered for martyrdom operations (suicide attacks) ... We have to organize our partisan attacks as of now," it said in a commentary Saturday.
The chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, was quoted on a Web site close to the force as saying Monday that Iran had "full intelligence dominance" over U.S. forces and that Iran will "suppress invaders" if it is attacked.
Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran is "ready for anything" in its confrontation with the United States — at the same time that he soundly rejected criticism at home over his policies.
Rising prices have fueled anger against Ahmadinejad — from both reformists and conservatives who were once his allies.
Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, joined the criticism, saying the president's provocation "only creates problems for the country."
"One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom, not provoke it," he told a group of reformists and opponents of Ahmadinejad on Friday in the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of the capital Tehran.