Tehran significantly raised tensions in the Persian Gulf this week by conducting missile tests and making clear that its weapons could be used against Israel and United States forces if Iran was attacked.
According to Iranian official reports, the military exercise involved nine missiles, one of them a new Shahab-3 long-range missile that could easily reach Israel and a number of US bases in the region.
The Revolutionary Guard air force commander, Hossein Salami, said the test was not routine but a demonstration of resolve as pressure grows on Iran to curb its nuclear programme. “We warn enemies who threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch,” Salami said. He added that Iran had thousands of missiles ready to be launched against “pre-determined targets”.
Days earlier, Ali Shirazi, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader, said Iran would retaliate against Israel and the US if it was attacked. “If they commit such a silly move, Tel Aviv and the US fleet in the Persian Gulf will be Iran’s first targets and they will be burned with Iran’s crushing response,” he said.
The Shahab-3 has been tested before, but the remarks by Iranian officials made it clear that on this occasion the test was intended to send a message.
Observers in the region interpreted the exercise as a pointed response to an Israeli exercise last month in which warplanes appeared to be rehearsing for a possible air strike against Iranian nuclear sites. An Israeli minister said recently that his government would have “no choice” but to attack Iranian sites if its nuclear programme continued.
The UN security council has called on Iran to curb uranium enrichment and reprocessing on the grounds that they could be used to make a bomb. Iran insists its nuclear programme is intended to meet the country’s future energy needs. A multinational team of diplomats visited Tehran last month to present economic and diplomatic incentives to suspend enrichment and reprocessing but Tehran has so far rejected any suspension.
The White House called on Iran to refrain from further tests. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, cited them as evidence that the world needs the US missile defence system, which has met political resistance in Europe.
Meanwhile, a senior state department official confirmed that US policy — to pursue a diplomatic solution but not to rule out a military option — remained unchanged.
“We view force as an option that is on the table but a last resort,” William Burns, the state department’s under secretary for political affairs, said.
Seven missile launches were detected by US tracking systems, and the Pentagon said it was studying the tests.
Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, said the tests demonstrated a need to change US policy to one of dialogue backed by tougher sanctions and fresh incentives. “Now is the time to work with our friends and allies, and to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with the Iranian regime backed by tougher unilateral and multilateral sanctions,” Obama said.
His Republican rival, John McCain, echoed Rice’s line that the missiles underlined the need for a new missile defence system.
Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations and analysis at the CIA, said the missile tests “showed the Iranians can cause a lot of problems if action is taken against them”.
He said he does not believe the US will attack Iran or that Israel would launch an attack on its own. “An Israeli attack would not accomplish the goal of destroying its nuclear capability,” he said.
In London, a United Kingdom Foreign Office spokesperson said: “These tests are unwelcome and only serves to reinforce our concerns about Iranian intentions. We have to question: why does Iran need such long-range missiles? What we have seen just underlines the need for Iran to comply with its international obligations on the nuclear issue.” —