Iran shows might of missiles days before nuclear plant showdown

The Times (UK)
Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
September 28, 2009

Iran began test-firing missiles yesterday, starting days of war games before a confrontation with foreign powers over a previously undisclosed secret nuclear facility.

The revelations about the enrichment plant, at a military base near the holy city of Qom, has dramatically upped the stakes for the meeting in Geneva on Thursday between Iranian representatives and those of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

The US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany had demanded that Iran offer a “serious response” to questions about a military dimension to its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is purely peaceful.

President Obama announced on Friday the discovery of a previously unknown uranium enrichment plant in a mountain, at a Revolutionary Guard base 20 miles from Qom.

The plant was declared to the UN nuclear watchdog only a week ago, after Tehran learnt of the foreign surveillance and decided to pre-empt its exposure with a cryptic note to the agency saying it was a “pilot plant”.

On Thursday Western officials will demand that Iran allow inspectors access to the site and the personnel who worked on it “within weeks”. American intelligence agencies estimate that the plant is designed to house 3,000 centrifuges, far too few to be used for energy production but enough to produce about one bomb’s worth of material a year…

…Iran’s military began test-firing short-range missiles [Sunday] in a show of strength demonstrating its preparedness to see off any military threat. That threat most likely comes from Israel, which has been restrained from carrying out strikes by Washington and remains impatient to do so. Today the air force will test fire the Shahab-3, a medium-range missile capable of hitting Israel and the weapon that Western intelligence agencies believe that Tehran has been modifying to carry a nuclear warhead.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, air force commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said of the firings: “This exercise has a message of friendship for friendly countries. For greedy countries that seek to intimidate us, the message is that we are capable of a prompt and crushing response.”…

…With Mr Obama’s tougher stance and Thursday’s deadline, the strategy of diplomatic engagement appears to be coming to an end. Hopes now lie in gathering Security Council backing for tough new sanctions on Iran. President Medvedev of Russia conceded that while he believed that sanctions were rarely productive, “in some cases, they are inevitable”. China has registered deep concern at the revelations.

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