Iran tested its longest-range, solid-fuel missile yet Wednesday — a launch that displayed Tehran's reach and burnished the president's hardline reputation ahead of next month's election.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed the test, which was announced by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The launch raised concerns about the sophistication of Tehran's missile program and Pentagon officials cautioned that it leaves Iran at a crossroads.
"They can either continue on this path of continued destabilization in the region or they can decide that they want to pursue relationships with the countries in the region and the United States that are more normalized," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
Solid-propellent rockets are a concern because they can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss technical details of Iran's missile program.
Israel said the test appeared to be in part Iran's response to a positive meeting on Monday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. Following the meeting, Obama threatened Iran with further international sanctions if it does not agree to reopen negotiations on its nuclear program.
"The announcement on Monday that there was a deadline by the U.S. may have been received in Tehran as a slap in the face," said Alex Vatanka, a senior Middle East analyst at Jane's Information Group, particularly coming after Iran's release last week of a American journalist who was jailed for spying.
He called the launch a gift to Ahmadinejad from military hard-liners who hoped it would demonstrate the country's strength and boost the president's popularity in advance of the June 12 election. The missile launched Wednesday was said to be capable of striking Israel, U.S. Mideast bases and Europe.
Vatanka said the test "does not change the strategic equation" in the region because Iran has had the ballistic missile capability to hit Israel and much of the Middle East for more than a decade with its Shahab missiles.
But Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Sajjil-2 had a longer range than the first one, increasing Iran's missile threat. The moment could arrive when Iran can "mate" these capabilities with its growing nuclear capabilities, leading to "a nightmare situation," he said.
Iran says its missile program is merely for defense and its space program is for scientific and surveillance purposes. It maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian energy uses only.
Tehran said the two-stage solid-fuel Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface missile has a range of about 1,200 miles, similar to that of the one launched late last year. He said the two differ because the Sajjil-2 "is equipped with a new navigation system as well as precise and sophisticated sensors," according to Iran's official news agency.
State radio quoted Ahmadinejad as saying the defense minister "has informed me that the Sajjil-2 missile, which has very advanced technology, was launched from Semnan and it landed precisely on the target." He did not name any targets for the missile when he spoke during a visit to the city of Semnan, 125 miles east of the capital Tehran, where Iran's space program is centered.
Sajjil means "baked clay." It is a reference to a story in the Quran, Islam's holy book, in which birds sent by God drive off an enemy army attacking the holy city of Mecca by pelting them with stones of baked clay.
Gates said the missile that was tested has a range roughly between 1,200 miles and 1,500 miles, although he speculated that because of chronic engine troubles, it was likely toward the lower end of that scale.
Iranian media reported the launch, but there was some discrepancies in the images that were broadcast.
State television at first showed a white rocket blasting off during its announcement about Wednesday's launch. Later it emerged that those were file pictures from an earlier blastoff. Subsequently, news programs showed footage of a different, blue rocket blasting off, and an announcer identified that missile as being the Sajjil 2.
In the past, Iran has made claims about its missiles which experts said turned out to be untrue or exaggerated.
Last July an Iranian photograph showed four missiles lifting off from a launch pad in the desert. Analysts later said the image had been altered and a new picture was posted showing three missiles in the air with a fourth still on the ground.
After Wednesday's test, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that if Iran manages to produce nuclear weapons, it would "spark an arms race" in the Middle East.
Italy said its foreign minister, Franco Frattini, canceled a planned trip to Iran on Wednesday because Ahmadinejad wanted to meet in Semnan rather than in Tehran.
Iran's nuclear and missile programs have alarmed Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu pressed Obama to step up pressure on Tehran when the two met in Washington on Monday.
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the test meant that parts of Europe are now in range and solid fuel reduces launch preparation time.
"If anyone had any doubts that the Iranians were playing with fire, today is proof," Ayalon said.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination, and the Jewish state has not ruled out a military strike to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Many Western experts have expressed skepticism about Iran's professed military achievements, and most believe Iran does not yet have the technology to produce nuclear weapons, including warheads for long-range missiles.
The U.S. released an intelligence report about 18 months ago that said Iran abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 under international pressure and has not restarted it.
Israel and several other countries have disputed the finding. But many in the West at least agree that Iran is seeking to develop the capability to develop weapons at some point. A group of U.S. and Russian scientists said in a report issued Tuesday that Iran could produce a simple nuclear device in one to three years and a nuclear warhead in another five years after that.