Iran on Wednesday test-fired a missile whose range puts Israel within reach, angering the United States amid growing fears that the standoff over the contested Iranian nuclear drive could lead to war.
The Shahab-3 was among a broadside of nine missiles fired off in the early morning from an undisclosed location in the Iranian desert, state-run Arabic channel Al-Alam and its English counterpart Press-TV reported.
Al-Alam said the missiles test-fired by the elite Revolutionary Guards included a “Shahab-3 with a conventional warhead weighing one tonne and a 2,000-kilometre (1,240-mile) range.”
The firing comes at a time of growing tension over Tehran’s nuclear drive, which Iran has insisted is peaceful but the West fears could be aimed at making an atomic bomb.
“The aim of these war games is to show we are ready to defend the integrity of the Iranian nation,” Al-Alam quoted Revolutionary Guards air force commander Hossein Salami as saying.
“Our missiles are ready for shooting at any place and any time, quickly and with accuracy. The enemy must not repeat its mistakes. The enemy targets are under surveillance,” he added.
The United States, which has never ruled out military action against Iranian atomic facilities, immediately condemned the missile tests.
“Iran’s development of ballistic missiles is a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and completely inconsistent with Iran’s obligations to the world,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Nine missiles were tested in all, state-run Press-TV reported.
Along with the Shahab-3, also test-fired were the Zelzal, with a range of up to 400 kilometres (250 miles), and the Fateh which has a range of around 170 kilometres (100 miles).
Press-TV showed footage of the Shahab-3 and other missiles being launched, apparently successfully, leaving huge clouds of smoke around the launch site.
The Islamic republic test-fired the Shahab-3 for the first time in an exercise in November 2006, but launching its longest-range weapon amid the current tension is sure to concern Iran’s Western foes.
The semi-official Fars news agency said the warhead on the Shahab-3 would fragment just before impact, maximising damage to the enemy.
There has been concern that an attack against Iran could be imminent after it emerged Israel had carried out manoeuvres in Greece that were effectively practice runs for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israel is Iran’s arch regional enemy and has expressed alarm over the rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly predicted that the Jewish state is doomed to disappear.
The missile launch comes a day after an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran would “set fire” to Israel and the US navy in the Gulf as its first response to any American attack over its nuclear programme.
“Tel Aviv and the US fleet in the Persian Gulf would be the targets that would be set on fire in Iran’s crushing response,” said mid-ranking cleric Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative to Revolutionary Guards naval forces.
Wednesday’s launch was part of The Great Prophet III war games by the missile and naval sections of the Revolutionary Guards which are aimed at improving combat readiness.
But diplomatic efforts are also continuing. Iran has responded to an offer from world powers to end the nuclear crisis and diplomats are analysing what is said to be a complex answer from Tehran.
The offer from world powers proposes that Iran suspend uranium enrichment — the key sticking point in the crisis and the process which they fear could be used to make a nuclear weapon — in exchange for technological incentives.
However the French foreign ministry has confirmed that Iran does not say in its response it is prepared to suspend uranium enrichment. Iranian leaders have repeatedly vowed never to suspend sensitive nuclear activities.
Iran rejects Western accusations and insists its nuclear programme is aimed solely at generating energy for a growing population whose fossil fuel reserves will eventually run out.