U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that Iran successfully test-fired a new missile yesterday, the Washington Times reported (see GSN, May 20).
"It was a successful test," Gates said, noting that the missile probably had a range between 1,200 and 1,500 miles.
"Because of some of the problems they've had with their engines, we think at least at this stage of the testing, 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," he said in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee.
"This is the first time they have successfully launched (a solid-fuel missile) of this range," a second U.S. official said. Missiles that rely on solid-fuel propellant can be more easily transported and prepared for launch than their liquid-fuel counterparts, according to the Times.
"Up to now, the Iranian missile force has been based on liquid-fueled systems, which they obtained from North Korea," said U.S. National Security Council official Gary Samore. Yesterday's test involved a "solid propellant system, which apparently they developed on their own" and which is "much easier to move around," he said.
"I see it as a significant step forward in terms of Iran's capability to deliver weapons. Obviously, this is just a test. There is much more work to be done," Samore said.
The test did not suggest that Iran has expanded the reach of its missiles, said Arms Control Association analyst Greg Thielmann.
"It does not add any significant range capability for Iran, since the extended-range Shahab 3 has already been tested to 2,000 kilometers (1,244 miles) and has already been deployed," Thielmann said. "Thus, no new countries would be threatened by the new solid-(fueled missile) that are not already threatened."
The missile test did not appear to have a direct link to Iran's nuclear work, but the launch was still "disturbing on its own," said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security.
The Iranian test could potentially reignite U.S. interest in a Bush administration plan to deploy missile defense elements in Europe, Albright said (see GSN, May 19). Russia has adamantly opposed the plan despite Washington's assurances that the defenses were intended only to counter Iranian missile threats.
The test "actually helps us in terms of making the case to countries like Russia, which have been skeptical in the past about whether Iran really poses a threat," Samore said. "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to capitalize on the test in order to strengthen the coalition we already have."
Moscow might have helped Iran to acquire a solid-fuel missile capability, said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
"The Russians a long time ago helped the North Koreans," Sokolski said. "This launch demonstrates again that they are still helping the Iranians. The implications of this is that it is kind of hard to talk about cooperating on Iran if they are helping them with this. These programs make no sense unless you are interested in delivering a nuclear warhead" (Nicholas Kralev, Washington Times, May 21).