Wednesday, May 20, 2009

State Department.: Iran Missile Test a Step in 'Wrong Direction'

The following is from Fox News:

The U.S. State Department said Iran "keeps going in the wrong direction" and urged it to "halt" its development of nuclear and missile programs after the country launched a long-range missile Wednesday -- capable of hitting Israel and other targets in the Middle East.

"Both we, the United States, and the entire international community have long expressed our serious concerns concerning Iran's missile development efforts," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday.

"In U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737, the Security Council expressed the determination to constrain Iran's development of sensitive technologies in support of its nuclear and missile programs, and prohibited states from transferring specified goods and providing other assistance to Iran related to the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems, including ballistic missiles," Kelly said. "We will continue to call on Iran to halt such activities, and take steps to build confidence among the international community, and support regional security rather than diminish it," Kelly said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that Iran conducted a successful ballistic missile test during congressional testimony on Wednesday. Gates called the test successful, and said it involved a missile with a range of approximately 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers. He added that because of chronic engine problems, the range is probably on the lower end of that scale.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday that the launch was a successful test-firing of an advanced missile -- a new version of the Sajjil missile, which Iran said it had successfully tested late last year with a similar range. Many analysts said the launch of the Sajjil was significant because solid fuel missiles are more accurate than liquid fuel missiles of similar range, such as Iran's Shahab-3.

"Defense Minister (Mostafa Mohammad Najjar) has informed me that the Sajjil-2 missile, which has very advanced technology, was launched from Semnan and it landed precisely on the target," state radio quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. He spoke during a visit to the city of Semnan, 125 miles east of the capital Tehran, where Iran's space program is centered.

The announcement comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election and just two days after President 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.

On Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta called Iran a "destabilizing force in the Middle East" in an interview with Global Viewpoint Network.

"Even though the administration is moving toward diplomatic engagement with that country, no one is naive about the challenges," Panetta told the network. "Iran aspires to be the pre-eminent power in the area through its nuclear program, meddling in Iraq, through its relations with Syria and through its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

"The judgment of the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons...assessing Iran's intentions is therefore a top priority," Panetta continued.

Panetta, who apparently recently returned from a secret visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cautioned that Israel should not attack Iran's nuclear facilities without consultation with the United States

"The Israelis are obviously concerned about Iran and focused on it. But he [Netanyahu] understands that if Israel goes it alone, it will mean big trouble. He knows that for the sake of Israeli security, they have to work together with others," Panetta told the network.

Iran's nuclear and missile programs have alarmed Israel. Netanyahu pressed Obama to step up pressure on Tehran when the two met in Washington on Monday. Israeli officials had no immediate comment on the Iranian missile launch.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination, and the Jewish state has not ruled out a military strike to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. However, Israeli officials are aware of the consequences of going it alone and have suggested a strike is not likely.

After he met Netanyahu, Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Iran if it shunned U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. The president said he expected a positive response to his outreach for opening a dialogue with Iran by the end of the year. So far, the Obama administration has received a mixed response from Ahmadinejad.

Most Western analysts believe Iran does not yet have the technology to produce nuclear weapons, including warheads for long-range missiles. The U.S. released an intelligence report about 18 months ago that said Iran abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 under international pressure and has not restarted it.

Israel and several other countries have disputed the finding, but many in the West at least agree that Iran is seeking to develop the capability to develop weapons at some point. A group of U.S. and Russian scientists said in a report issued Tuesday that Iran could produce a simple nuclear device in one to three years and a nuclear warhead in another five years after that.

The study published by the nonpartisan EastWest Institute also said Iran is making advances in rocket technology and could develop a ballistic missile capable of firing a 2,200-pound nuclear warhead up to 1,200 miles "in perhaps six to eight years."

Iran says its missile program is merely for defense and its space program is for scientific and surveillance purposes. It maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian energy uses only.

However, Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, questioned the conclusions of the report, noting that the authors are opponents of missile defense.

"It does not have very much credibility to me. I think there are other motivations behind the report," he told FOX News.

FOX News' Wendell Goler and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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