Iran tested its longest-range missiles Monday and warned they can reach any place that threatens the country, including Israel, parts of Europe and U.S. military bases in the Mideast. The launch capped two days of war games and was condemned as a provocation by Western powers, which are demanding Tehran come clean about a newly revealed nuclear facility it has been secretly building.
The tests Sunday and again Monday added urgency to a key meeting this week between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — an international front seeking clear answers about the direction of its nuclear program.
Iran's missile program and its nuclear work — much of it carried out in secrecy — have long been a concern for the United States, Israel and its Western allies. They fear Tehran is intent on developing an atomic weapons capability and the missiles to deploy such warheads, despite Iran's assurances it is only pursuing civilian nuclear power.
In the latest exercise, the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which controls Iran's missile program, successfully tested upgraded versions of Iran's medium-range Shahab-3 and Sajjil missiles, state television reported. Both can carry warheads and reach up to 1,200 miles, putting Israel, U.S. military bases in the Middle East and parts of Europe within striking distance.
The launchings were meant to display Iran's military might and demonstrate its readiness to respond to any military threat.
"Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran," said Abdollah Araqi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Iran conducted three rounds of missile tests in drills that began Sunday, two days after the U.S. and its allies disclosed the country had been secretly developing an underground uranium enrichment facility. The Western powers warned Iran must open the site to international inspection or face harsher international sanctions.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, maintained the missile tests had nothing to do with the tension over the site, saying they were part of routine, long-planned military exercises.
That assertion was rejected by the United States and its European allies.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the tests "provocative in nature," adding: "Obviously, these were pre-planned military exercises."
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages agreed, saying "these tests constitute a provocation, even as we have multiplied our offers of dialogue with Iran."
The latest controversy comes days before a critical meeting Thursday in Geneva between Iran and six major powers trying to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
The prospect of more U.N. sanctions on Iran is a possibility, targeting specific people and facilities. "We're prepared to take additional steps," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington.
Iran's new nuclear site is located in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom and is believed to be inside a heavily guarded, underground facility belonging to the Revolutionary Guard, according to a document sent by President Barack Obama's administration to lawmakers.
Experts say they have found sites that appear to be military north of Qom, although there has been no confirmation from the U.S. government and Iran says the nuclear facility is south of the holy city.
A satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye shows a well-fortified facility built into a mountain about 20 miles northeast of Qom, with ventilation shafts and a nearby surface-to-air missile site, according to defense consultancy IHS Jane's, which did the analysis of the imagery. The image was taken in September.
However, Iran's Foreign Ministry has given a different location, saying Monday it was near the village of Fordo, which is about 30 miles south of Qom.
GlobalSecurity.org analyzed images from 2005 and January 2009 when the site was in an earlier phase of construction and believes the facility is not underground but was instead cut into a mountain. It is constructed of heavily reinforced concrete and is about the size of a football field — large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges used to refine uranium.
Allison Puccioni, a senior imagery analyst with Jane's, said Monday she could not reconcile the discrepancy between the location detailed in the satellite images and the site described by Iran's foreign ministry. But she said there was no question a massive facility was being hollowed out north of Qom.
"It's undergoing massive construction as we speak. The level of reinforcement and security is highly consistent with a strategic facility," she said in a telephone interview from Mountainview, Calif.
After strong condemnations from the U.S. and its allies, Iran said Saturday it would allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to examine the site.
The facility's military connection could undermine Iran's contention that the plant was designed for civilian purposes.
Israel has trumpeted the latest discoveries as proof of its long-held assertion that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. By U.S. estimates, Iran is one to five years away from having nuclear weapons capability, although U.S. intelligence also believes that Iranian leaders have not yet made the decision to build a weapon.
Iran is also developing ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead, although a U.S. intelligence assessment in May says the country is focusing efforts on short- and medium-range missiles like the Shahab.
That assessment paved the way for Obama's decision to shelve the Bush administration's plan for a missile shield in Europe, which was aimed at defending against Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Iran is not expected to have such a missile until 2015 to 2020, according to the report, which was described by a U.S. government official on condition of anonymity because it is classified.
The Sajjil-2 missile is Iran's most advanced two-stage surface-to-surface missile and is powered entirely by solid-fuel, while the older Shahab-3 uses a combination of solid and liquid fuel in its most advanced form, known as the Qadr-F1.
Solid fuel increases a missile's accuracy in reaching targets and is seen as a technological breakthrough for any missile program.
Experts say the Sajjil-2 is more accurate and has a more advanced navigation system than the Shahab.