CAIRO - With US warships in the Persian Gulf and the rhetoric between Iran and Israel growing more heated, Tehran yesterday test-fired nine missiles, including at least one capable of striking Israel and other US allies and interests in the Middle East.
The missiles were launched during military exercises staged by Iran's Revolutionary Guards near the strategic oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. State television quoted a top military leader, General Hossein Salami, as saying the war games in the Persian Gulf would "demonstrate our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was traveling in Bulgaria, said the launches constituted "evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one."
The tests were the latest drama in the standoff over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, which Tehran says will produce power for civilian use but the West and Israel allege is intent on building a bomb. The missiles streaked into the desert sky as US and British ships were on military maneuvers in the Gulf and just days after disclosures that Israel had conducted long-range military exercises in June that were widely seen as a rehearsal for a possible strike on Iran.
Iranian TV showed three simultaneous launches, one of a new version of the Shahab-3 missile, which Tehran says carries a 1-ton conventional warhead and can travel 1,250 miles, well within the range of US troops in Iraq, the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, and American allies Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Iran said earlier this week that it would retaliate against US and Israeli interests in the region if its nuclear facilities were attacked.
"Our hands are always on the trigger, and our missiles are ready for launch," Salami was quoted as saying yesterday by the official IRNA news agency.
The launches came a day after seemingly contradictory statements from top Iranian officials. A spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, said Israel and the US fleet in the gulf would "burst into flames" if Iran were attacked. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his strident rhetoric, appeared to soften the atmosphere by saying that the prospect of Israel and the United States striking Iran was a "funny joke" and that there "won't be any war" in the future.
"The Iranian regime only furthers the isolation of the Iranian people from the international community when it engages in this sort of activity," said Gordon Johndroe, deputy White House press secretary, speaking from Japan where President Bush is attending the Group of Eight summit.
He said that if the Iranians want to gain the world's trust they should immediately "stop the development of ballistic missiles which could be used as a delivery vehicle for potential nuclear weapon."
US military officials said the test demonstrated Iran's long-range missile capability, but they are trying to determine whether it showed advances in the country's weaponry.
"The fact is, they've just tested a missile that has a pretty extended range," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.
He added that Israel and Iran recognize the dangers of a military conflict.
"The reality is that there is a lot of signaling going on, but I think everybody recognizes what the consequences of any kind of a conflict would be," Gates said. He emphasized that the United States remains committed to diplomatic and economic approaches to resolving regional tensions.
Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, portrayed the tests as a continuation of two rounds of missile tests extending to 2006.
Asked whether, with the Israeli air force exercises, tensions were rising, he said: "It's not as though tension is new to the Middle East and the region."
Iran's actions were also absorbed by the US presidential campaign. Democratic Senator Barack Obama called on the United States to work with its allies "to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with the Iranian regime backed by tougher unilateral and multilateral sanctions." He added that Iran "poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States in the region in a generation."
Republican Senator John McCain said: "Iran's missile tests also demonstrate the need for effective missile defense now and in the future, and this includes missile defense in Europe as is planned with the Czech Republic and Poland. Working with our European and regional allies is the best way to meet the threat posed by Iran, not unilateral concessions that undermine multilateral diplomacy."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Jerusalem "does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran. But it is clear that the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program is a matter of grave concern."
On a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said: "These are very dangerous missiles. That's why the international community and not just Israel has an interest in blocking this escalation in a definitive way."