Iran missile tests raise tensions

Tehran says the weapons could hit Israel, Iraq, Europe

July 10, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - Iran raised the stakes in an already jittery Persian Gulf region yesterday by test-firing missiles that it said had a range sufficient to target Israel, U.S. forces in Iraq and southern Europe.

The launches came during a period of military elbowing and jostling, including an Israeli exercise last month said by some analysts to be a massive rehearsal for an air campaign against Iran's nuclear development facilities.

Both the U.S. and Iran have held military exercises in the region this week, and an Iranian threat to close the vital Strait of Hormuz if attacked was met with a sharp American response that no blockage of the strait would be tolerated.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph of the test firing of missiles released by the public relations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Sepah News, which ran on the front page of yesterday's editions of The Sun had been digitally altered. The Sun was unaware of this manipulation. The photograph above is the correct image, which shows one missile remaining in the launcher.

But senior U.S. officials played down the missile tests as a significant step toward war.

"There's a lot of signaling going on, but I think everybody recognizes what the consequences of any kind of a conflict would be," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.

Gates, who has sought for months to ease concerns that a war with Iran was inevitable, said specifically that he believed that both Israel and Iran understood the consequences of such a conflict.

Asked if he thought the saber-rattling had moved the U.S. and Iran any closer to war, Gates replied: "No, I don't think so."

Gates said he could not confirm Iran's claim that it had successfully tested the missiles to a distance of 1,250 miles.

Iranian officials insisted that they were prepared to retaliate if threatened or attacked.

"Our hands are always on the trigger, and our missiles are ready for launch," said Gen. Hossein Salami, air commander of the Revolutionary Guards, which conducted the tests, according to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency.

Nevertheless, the heated rhetoric and missile tests pushed crude oil prices upward by $1.44, to $137.48 per barrel.

Supertankers carry some 40 percent of the world's oil through the 35-mile-wide strait, which is heavily targeted by Iranian anti-ship missiles, according to U.S. officials. The region's land pipelines have insufficient capacity to maintain the flow of oil exports if the strait were to be closed.

Senior U.S. naval officers have acknowledged that Iran has the capability to temporarily close the strait with a combination of mines, its six submarines and anti-ship missiles. But U.S. air and naval forces in the region have planned and practiced operations for years to quickly reopen the waterway and have expressed confidence that they could do so.

Analysts also said Iran is unlikely to close Hormuz because it depends heavily on imports for domestic gasoline consumption and to export its own crude oil, the source of most of its income.

The possibility of conflict in the Persian Gulf, whether intentional or not, arises from growing concern about Iran's apparent determination to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Concern is especially acute in Israel, which lies well within range of Iranian missiles.

The United States and its allies, working through the United Nations, have imposed economic sanctions on Iran, in a confrontation that has frustrated both sides.

The Iranian missile tests prompted responses from both major presidential candidates. Republican Sen. John McCain noted the dangers Iran poses "especially to Israel," and renewed his call for effective missile defenses.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama called Iran "the greatest strategic challenge to the United States in the region" and repeated his call for "direct and aggressive diplomacy."

On Capitol Hill, a senior State Department official acknowledged that Iran is dangerous but "not 10 feet tall."

"The Iranian regime is a potent regional adversary, tactically cunning and opportunistic and good at asymmetric conflict," Undersecretary of State William Burns told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. But "because of its behavior, it can count on few allies in the world beyond the unimposing trio of Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela, and sometimes Syria."

Iran's long-range missile, the Shahab-3, is a derivative of a North Korean missile designed in the early 1990s and upgraded with Chinese and Russian assistance, according to U.S. intelligence officials and private analysts. Iran first tested the Shahab-3, unsuccessfully, in 1993.

Iran has worked to extend its range by enlarging its fuel capacity and elongating the rocket body.

Global dependence on Persian Gulf oil is increasing, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, while Iran has shown no sign of being willing to give up its nuclear program or stop supplying insurgents in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza with military training and weapons.

Analysts such as Fereidun Fesharaki of Facts Global Energy Inc., an international energy consulting firm, point out, though, that Iran is highly dependent on continuing the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf.

Fesharaki said last month that Iran's consumption of gasoline, which is mostly imported because Iran lacks modern refining facilities, is growing at about 10 percent per year.

A year ago, Iran imposed severe gasoline rationing, prompting street riots in Tehran and elsewhere.

Owners of private cars are limited to 26 gallons per month. In March, the government began allowing drivers to purchase beyond that limit, at four times the cost.

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