Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Iran 'test launches' medium-range missile

Iran says it has successfully test launched a mid-range surface-to-surface missile, state media has reported.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Sajjil-2 missile used "advanced technology" and had "landed exactly" on the unspecified target.

He was speaking in Semnan, from where the missile, with a range of 2,000km (1,240 miles), was reportedly launched.

US officials were reported to have confirmed the test was for a mid-range missile and that it was successful.

Analysts say the test may be seen as provocative by Iran's Arab neighbours and its opponents in the West.

"The defence minister [Mohammed Najjar] told me today that we launched a Sajjil-2 missile, which is a two-stage missile and it has reached the intended target," Mr Ahmadinejad told a crowd in the northern town.

He said the missile used solid fuel and was "able to go beyond the atmosphere then come back and hit its target".

Solid-fuel missiles are reputedly more accurate than liquid-fuel missiles, which make up the majority of Iran's long-range arsenal.

According to news agencies, US officials have said that initial indications show the launch was a success.

"At this point there's reason to believe it was a medium-range ballistic missile," one US government official told AFP.

Political message

Iran tested a Sajjil missile in November last year, described by officials at the time as a highly accurate "defensive" weapon.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Tehran says the Sajjil-2 is one of Iran's longest range rockets, able to reach Israel and US bases in the Gulf, and the launch is likely to be criticised by the West.

It is hard to tell whether the launch was deliberately provocative, but the fact that it was announced by the president means it is probably intended as a political message, says our correspondent.

Following the announcement, Italy's foreign minister cancelled a planned trip to Tehran because Iranian officials changed the venue for his two-day visit.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini rejected the request to meet Mr Ahmadinejad at the launch site, Semnan, instead of in the capital.

Hours before his trip should have begun, Mr Frattini expressed "strong regret over a lost opportunity" to discuss Iran's role in stabilising Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Iran says its missile development programme is solely for defensive and scientific purposes, but critics say the rockets could one day be used to nuclear weapons, although Iran denies its nuclear programme has any military dimension.

The announcement of the launch came shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was confirmed as one of the four candidates cleared to stand in Iran's 12 June presidential elections.

He will run against two leading reformists - former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi - and Mohsen Rezai, former chief of the Revolutionary Guards.