Iran missile test sends message to US, Israel

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran test-fired nine missiles Wednesday, including ones capable of hitting Israel, making a dramatic show of its readiness to strike back if the United States or Israel attacks it over its nuclear program.

The launches sparked strong U.S. criticism and a jump in oil prices - underlining fears Iran might seal off the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf waterway through which 40 percent of the world's crude passes, if military conflict does break out.

The tests of the long- and medium-range missiles did not appear to mark a significant advance in Iran's missile capability - similar ones have been tested previously. But the timing and location were clearly aimed to send a message, coming as Iran has sharply stepped up the tone of its warnings of retaliation if attacked. This week, a top official of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Ali Shirazi, warned Tel Aviv would be "set on fire" in any Iranian retaliation.

The tests took place amid a military exercise that Iran has been conducting in the Hormuz strait, where Tehran has threatened to block oil traffic in response to any U.S. or Israeli military action.

Iran has long warned it would strike back for any attack against it. But it has sharpened its rhetoric since Israel's military sent warplanes over the eastern Mediterranean in June for a large military exercise that U.S. officials described as a possible rehearsal for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Gen. Hossein Salami, the Revolutionary Guards air force commander, said Iran's war games this week - code-named "Noble Prophet" - "demonstrate our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language," state TV reported.

"Hundreds and maybe thousands of missiles are ready to be fired at specified targets," he said. "A small part of our defense options was put on display for the world today. Our real reaction against enemy threats will be quicker and stronger."

The West needs to "assess Iran's might accurately," he added.

State TV aired footage of at least six missiles being fired simultaneously, and said the barrage included a new version of the Shahab-3 missile, which officials have said has a range of 1,250 miles and is armed with a 1-ton conventional warhead. That would put Israel, Turkey, the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan within striking distance. The TV report did not say whether the test took place near the Hormuz strait.

The U.S. Defense Department said it was studying the test to determine exactly what was launched and what it shows about Tehran's missile capabilities.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Wednesday's tests "evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one."

"Those who say that there is no Iranian missile threat against which we should build a missile defense system perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about their claims," Rice said while traveling in Sofia, Bulgaria.

On Tuesday, Rice and Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg signed a deal allowing the U.S. to base a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the test bolsters the U.S. argument that Tehran is a threat and a missile defense system is needed in Europe.

A White House spokesman called the tests "completely inconsistent with Iran's obligations to the world" and said they further isolate the country.

Iran should "refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, speaking from Japan where President Bush is attending the Group of Eight summit.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Iran's missile tests highlight the need for direct diplomacy as well as tougher threats of economic sanctions and strong incentives to persuade Tehran to change its behavior.

John McCain, the Republican seeking the presidency, said the tests demonstrate a need for effective missile defense, including missile defense in Europe and the defense system the U.S. plans with the Czech Republic and Poland. Oil prices rose Wednesday on news of the tests, along with a U.S. government report showing crude stockpiles fell more than expected. Light, sweet crude for August delivery rose $1.50 to $137.54 a barrel in early afternoon trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Israeli defense officials said there were no major surprises in the latest Iranian missile tests. The officials said they appeared to be more of an exercise in psychological warfare than a breakthrough in military technology.

"Israel does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "But it is clear that the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program is a matter of grave concern."

The test could also be aimed to show the West there cannot be a military solution to the standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Iran denies U.S. accusations it seeks to build nuclear weapons, and earlier this week it sent a response to a Western package of economic incentives aimed at pushing it to halt uranium enrichment. EU officials have said they are still evaluating the response, but Tehran has insisted it will not suspend enrichment.

Iranian leaders have said they don't believe the U.S. or Israel will attack, citing U.S. problems in Iraq and the effect on already soaring oil prices. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday called the idea of an attack a "funny joke."

But at the same, Iran has been more vocal in warning of the fallout of any U.S. or Israeli strike.

The semi-official Fars news agency, which is believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported details on the missiles tested Wednesday, saying they included a "newly upgraded" Shahab-3, first tested in its longest-range version in 2004.

The Shehab-3 tested Wednesday has been designed with a "cluster" warhead, that allows it to release multiple bombs over a wider area, Fars said, without elaborating. It also boasts a more accurate navigational system that allows a control room to bring the missile back on route if it strays or destroy it if it goes too far off course, it said.

The other missiles tested included the Zelzal, versions of which have a range of 130-185 miles, and the Fateh, with a range of 105 miles.

By ALI AKBAR DAREINI; Associated Press Writer