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Iran: Tehran's Test Of New Missile Stirs Concern

Iran has caused fresh concern with its test this week of a new version of its Shihab-3 ballistic missile. Top Iranian officials say the missile is for purely defensive purposes, but experts note it is capable of striking targets in Israel as well as U.S. targets in the Middle East. At the same time, Iranian leaders have said they intend to press on with what they say is a peaceful nuclear-energy program, despite international mistrust of their intentions. Just why is Iran taking this uncompromising line?

Prague, 12 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran, defying international pressure, has this week reiterated in word and deed its hard line on defense and nuclear-energy issues.

The test of a new, purportedly more accurate version of the Shihab-3 missile yesterday coincides with statements from Iranian leaders that they have no intention of giving up the country's nuclear-energy program, despite the international concerns.

Speaking during a visit to Australia, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said today that his country needs the improved Shihab-3 in view of what he called "threats" from Israeli officials to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. "It's very natural that when our country is being threatened by a foreign country we have to get prepared to defend ourselves," he said.

The upgraded missile features greater accuracy, and a range of 1,300 kilometers, which means it can strike targets in Israel and also U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf region.

At the same time, Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami insisted that Iran will press ahead with its nuclear program, and is ready to take the consequences for doing so -- an apparent reference to the possible imposition of sanctions by the United Nations, at the instigation of the United States.

"We hope to resolve the issue through justifications, explanations and calm. But if anyone wanted to deprive us of our right, we and our nation would be ready to pay the price and not to abandon our national right [to pursue a peaceful nuclear program]," Khatami said.

Iran denies U.S. assertions that it is developing nuclear weapons. But international unease has been rekindled since earlier this month, when Iran announced it had resumed building centrifuges to enrich uranium. Such enriched uranium has dual civil and military applications, in that it can be used in both reactors to produce electricity, and in nuclear weapons.

U.S. Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli warned yesterday that Iran's secret nuclear-weapons program, combined with its continued development of medium-range missiles, poses a threat of regional destabilization.

Why is Tehran pushing so hard now, when the United States is plainly losing patience with Iran's course of action? Rohani gave a clue when he said Washington is struggling to deal with the consequences of its intervention in Iraq: "I think the experience of Iraq would be sufficient for the Americans for years to come not to think of invasion against any other country."

In other words, he is saying that Iran feels it does not have much to fear militarily from the United States, in view of Iraq, and can go its own way.
"Always, when Iran is threatened, the so-called conservatives or radicals gain the upper hand and their response is strong." - Nourizadeh

However, analyst Alireza Nourizadeh, of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, puts a different interpretation on these developments. He notes that the new Iraqi interim government of Iyad Allawi is not as friendly to its neighbor has had been expected.

"The Iranians at the moment are facing isolation. The government in Baghdad -- which they thought was going to be a friendly government because some of its members have connections with Iran -- has now turned against them after the discovery of Iranian-made weapons [in the hands of Iraqi insurgents] and also the arrest of Iranians accused of interfering in Iraqi internal affairs," Nourizadeh said.

Nourizadeh said that this unexpected rejection, coupled with the warnings from the United States -- as well as the talk of international sanctions and Israeli threats -- is having a big impact on Iranian leaders. But instead of producing a change of policy, it is producing hard-line defiance from Tehran.

"Always, when Iran is threatened, the so-called conservatives or radicals gain the upper hand and their response is strong. Also, [reformist President] Khatami is under pressure, he has to come up with ideas which are acceptable to [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the radicals. So we hear Khatami using the same vocabulary which we used to hear from the conservatives," Nourizadeh said.

The analyst says that despite Tehran's hard-line rhetoric, the Iranians are basically marking time until after the U.S. presidential election in November, to see what sort of administration they will be facing in Washington, and therefore what policy options they might have.