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Iran fires missile, tests US

Strains Obama's goal of diplomacy

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Iran test-fired a medium-range missile yesterday, ratcheting up the pressure on President Obama, who has staked his reputation on the idea that talks with the Iranian government will produce better results than military threats.

Some analysts saw the timing of the launch of the Sejil 2 missile - a more accurate, solid-fuel version of an existing missile that is capable of reaching Israel, US bases in the Mideast, and parts of Europe - as more worrisome than the technology on display.

"Certainly the timing is significant and conveys a message of defiance," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's a bit early to say whether the launch reflects a significant technological advance or not."

In recent months, the Obama administration has made several historic overtures to Iran in hopes that diplomacy will persuade Iran to stop producing enriched uranium, fuel that Iran says is for peaceful, civilian uses but that the United States fears is for a nuclear weapon.

But Iranian leaders have so far failed to respond positively, leading some US officials to express frustration that diplomacy might achieve little. Obama has remained optimistic, though. He told reporters after meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who raised the threat of Iranian missiles, that US policymakers should be patient and wait for the Iranian election on June 12. Obama asserted that Iranian politicians in the throes of a heated campaign should not be expected to take big risks by accepting US proposals for engagement before the vote.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed those sentiments, saying that while the missile test is "concerning" it would not derail any future US-Iran talks.

"The president and the prime minister both agreed on Monday that engaging the people and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, something that hasn't been tried for the past many years, is something that makes sense," Gibbs said.

Indeed, some analysts saw the missile test as a campaign stunt by hard-line Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who frequently touts Iran's advances in missile technology and its ability to master the nuclear fuel cycle in his campaign slogans.

"We send them a message: Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is running the show," Ahmadinejad boasted yesterday in a speech broadcast live on Iranian television, the Washington Post reported. "We say to the superpowers, 'who of you dare to threaten the Iranian nation? Raise your hand!' But they all stand there with their hands behind their backs."

Ahmad Sadri, a professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois and a frequent contributor to a liberal newspaper in Iran, said "he paints himself as a nationalist hero who did not give in and fold in the face of foreign powers. I would say [the missile test] is not directed at the United States. It is for domestic consumption."

Mark Gasiorowski , professor of political science at Louisiana State University who has taught and done research at the University of Tehran, said Iran routinely organizes parades and launches to publicize their missiles and stoke nationalist feelings inside the country. But he said that such displays do not mean that Iran won't eventually decide to normalize relations with the United States and compromise on its nuclear ambitions.

"All of this is meant to show the world - and Iranians - that Iran is strong," he said. "This is not going to affect steps on both sides toward rapprochement."

But Charles Vick, a senior technical analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank on international security issues, saw the launch differently.

"What it says is, 'Yeah, Mr. Obama, we will talk with you, but we are not changing our direction,' " he said.

"One way of looking at it is, they are trying to dictate to the world and make everybody kowtow to them."

Iran has previously tested missiles capable of reaching even further than the one launched yesterday. Iran's Shahab-4, derived from a North Korean design, is believed to have surpassed the 1,200-mile range, while an earlier version of the Iranian-produced Sejil, tested in November, was in the same range.

But the Sejil 2 is a significant advancement over older models because it uses a solid propellant technology that takes only about 30 minutes to launch, rather than a liquid propellant system that takes several hours, making it more mobile and harder to defend against, Vick said.

"It's a bigger strategic threat," he said of the Sejil 2. "With the liquid system you could go in and knock it over before it is launched. The solid propellant system is a whole different game."

Vick said Iran is also in the process of developing longer-range missiles with a range of 2,500 miles, putting most of Europe within reach. Iran is also trying to develop a space booster that can be used either to launch peaceful satellites or to make intercontinental missiles, he said, adding, "It is of the right size category to reach the US, if it does in fact become a reality."

Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, told reporters the launch was "additional proof of the need to form a plan to cope with the Iranian challenge."

Yesterday, US officials confirmed a successful launch, while saying they were still trying to determine the missile's range, trajectory, and other details. But they refrained from issuing the usual harsh condemnations of Iran that traditionally follow such tests.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying before a Senate budget subcommittee yesterday, said the Obama administration intended to convince Iran that curbing its nuclear ambitions will maker it safer, not more vulnerable.

"A nuclear-armed Iran with a deliverable weapons system is going to spark an arms race in the Middle East and the greater region," she said. "That is not going to be in the interests of Iranian security and we believe that we have a very strong case to make for that."

Clinton said if the US diplomatic effort does not work, Washington will be in a better position to get the rest of the world to support more sanctions.

Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said missile launches will make it harder for Obama to get support for diplomatic engagement.

"I think he can certainly hold the course until after the Iranian election, but if we are still seeing provocations this fall and there is not much sign of a positive Iranian response . . . then Obama has to start thinking: What is plan B?" said Mead.

"If Iran is just pinging one provocation after another at Obama, there is a certain point where restraint starts looking like weakness."