The missile test-fired by Iran is the longest-range solid-propellent missile it has launched yet, raising concerns about the sophistication of Tehran's missile program, a U.S. government official said Wednesday.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss technical details of Iran's missile program, said Tehran has demonstrated shorter-range solid-propellent missiles in the past.
Solid-propellent rockets are a concern because they can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos, the official said. Liquid-propellent rockets have to be fueled and fired quickly, which makes preparations for launches easier to monitor and would allow a pre-emptive strike if necessary.
But according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who Wednesday provided the first official U.S. confirmation of the Iranian launch, the Iranian missile had a range of 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers.
"That translates to 1,200 to 1,500 miles, putting Israel, U.S. bases in the Mideast, and parts of Eastern Europe within striking distance. The information that I have read indicates that it was a successful flight test," Gates told the House Appropriations Committee nearly eight hours after it was announced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Gates added that, "Because of some of the problems they've had with theirengines we think at least at this stage of the testing we think it's probably closer to the lower end of that range. Whether it hit the target that it was intended for, I have not seen any information on that."
U.S. officials said that government analysts and other specialists were still assessing information from the launch.
"Obviously that's concerning," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said of the launch.
Iran's launch comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election and just two days after President Barack Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Tehran if it did not respond positively to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. Obama said earlier this week that Tehran had until the end of the year to show it wanted to engage with Washington.
But both U.S. government officials and independent American missile experts said Wednesday that the Iranian missile itself did not appear to be a new model.
Charles Vick, a senior technical analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, analyzedphotos and videotape of the launch released by Iran.
"I'm not all that impressed," Vick said. "It's just another test that confirms they've got the system that was operational last summer.
"Obviously, we've seen reports," Gibbs said. "You all know the concerns that the president has about Iran's missile development programs. and the strong belief that the pursuit of those programs does not strengthen the security of Iran but instead make them less safe. Obviously, the president has been long concerned about it."
Gibbs noted that Obama and visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had 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.
Some dozen hours after the test was reportedly conducted, numerous U.S.defense and intelligence officials declined to even acknowledge the Iranian launch had occurred.
Some referred calls to the White House and State Department, a sign of how politically sensitive the development is to the Obama administration and its continuing efforts to deal with Iran's reported efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing Wednesday morning before the Senate Appropriations Committee, said nothing directly about the Iranian launch when Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, raised the issue during questioning.
But Clinton did discuss the subject generally, saying that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an arms race in the Middle East. She referred to a host of threats to the United States that she said are daunting. And Clinton reiterated that the administration opposes Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability and that it is relying for now on diplomatic pressure to stop it.
She described a nuclear capability as an extraordinary threat. And Clinton said that the U.S. goal is to persuade the Iranian regime that they will actually be less secure if they proceed with their nuclear weapons program.
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