Published December 16, 2009
TEHRAN, Iran – Iran on Wednesday test-fired an upgraded version of its most advanced missile, which is capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe, in a new show of strength aimed at preventing any military strike against it amid the nuclear standoff with the West.
The test stoked tensions between Iran and the West, which is pressing Tehran to rein in its nuclear program. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it showed the need for tougher U.N. sanctions on Iran.
"This is a matter of serious concern to the international community and it does make the case for us moving further on sanctions. We will treat this with the seriousness it deserves," Brown said after talks with U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon in Copenhagen.
In Washington, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell called the launch provocative but said the technology was not "particularly different than anything we've seen in the past."
"Obviously, it is another example of provocative actions on the part of the Iranian government that do nothing to instill any degree of confidence in its neighbors that it has peaceful intentions," he said.
Wednesday's test was for the latest version of Iran's longest-range missile, the Sajjil-2, with a range of about 1,200 miles. That range places Israel, Iran's sworn enemy, well within reach, as well as U.S. bases in the Gulf region and parts of southeastern Europe.
The two-stage Sajjil-2 and is powered entirely by solid-fuel while the older, medium-range Shahab-3 missile uses a combination of solid and liquid fuel in its most advanced form.
Iran has repeatedly warned it will retaliate if Israel or the United States carries out military strikes against its nuclear facilities, at a time when the U.S. and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the claim, saying its program is intended solely to generate electricity.
Nuclear negotiations have been deadlocked for months, with Iran equivocating over a U.N.-drafted deal aimed at removing most of its low-enriched uranium from the country so it would not have enough stockpiles to produce a bomb. The U.N. nuclear watchdog last month sharply rebuked Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.
State television broke the news in a one-sentence report accompanied by a brief clip of the test, showing the missile rising from the launch pad in a cloud of smoke.
Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi vowed that the Sajjil-2 would be a "strong deterrent" against any possible foreign attack. He said the new version can be fired more quickly and flies faster than previous ones making it harder to shoot down, though he did not give further details.
"Given its high speed," he said, speaking on state TV, "it is impossible to destroy the missile with anti-missile systems because of its radar-evading ability."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment on the latest missile test.
Iran has intensified its missile development program in recent years, a source of serious concern in Israel, the United States and its Western allies at a time when they accuse Tehran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Iran, which is under several sets of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program, denies the charges and says its nuclear program is aimed solely at generating electricity.
Israel has not ruled out a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran, in turn, has threatened that such an attack would be retaliated against with strikes on Israel's own nuclear sites.
The name "Sajjil" means "baked clay," 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.
The Sajjil-2 was first tested in May. Iranian officials touted it as a breakthrough over the Sajjil-1 unveiled months earlier, saying the new missile had a more sophisticated navigation system. The Sajjil-2 was tested a second time in September.
Solid-fuel missiles like the Sajjil-2 are more accurate than the liquid fuel missiles of similar range currently possessed by Iran. They are also a concern because they can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos. Iran previously had a solid-fuel missile, the Fateh, with a far shorter range of 120 miles.
Iran's arms manufacturing program began during the country's ruinous 1980-88 war with neighboring Iraq to compensate for a U.S. arms embargo. Since 1992, Iran has produced its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and a fighter plane. The actual capabilities of the weapons, including the accuracy and range of the country's homemade missiles, are difficult to ascertain given the secrecy of the Iranian military.