Iran tests more missiles as U.S. vows to defend allies
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran tested more missiles in the Gulf on Thursday, state media said, and the United States reminded Tehran that it was ready to defend its allies.
The United States, which accuses Tehran of seeking nuclear arms, said after Iran test-fired nine missiles on Wednesday that there should be no more such tests if Iran wanted the world's trust. An intelligence official in Washington said there had been a second test and that it was small.
U.S. leaders have not ruled out military options if diplomacy fails to assuage fears about Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is only to produce electricity.
Israel, which has long been assumed to have its own atomic arsenal, has sworn to prevent Iran from emerging as a nuclear-armed power. Last month it staged an air force exercise that stoked speculation about a possible assault on Iranian nuclear sites.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he favored diplomatic pressure and sanctions, but: "Israel is the strongest country in the region and has proved in the past it is not afraid to take action when its vital security interests are at stake."
Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, has vowed to strike back at Tel Aviv, as well as U.S. interests and shipping, if it is attacked, asserting that missiles fired during war games in the Gulf included some that could hit Israel and U.S. bases in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia that no one should doubt Washington's commitment to protect its allies.
"We are also sending a message to Iran that we will defend American interests and ... the interests of our allies," she said.
Rice said a planned U.S. missile defense shield, to be partly based in the Czech Republic and Poland, would dampen any threat of an attack from Iran. Russia opposes the project.
Iranian state TV and radio said the Revolutionary Guards -- the ideologically driven wing of Iran's armed forces -- had fired ground-to-sea, surface-to-surface and sea-to-air missiles overnight. Long-range missiles were also launched.
"The ... maneuver brings power to the Islamic Republic of Iran and is a lesson for enemies," Guards Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari was quoted as saying.
The missile tests have rattled global oil markets. In late afternoon trading, oil prices surged $6, with some traders talking of a potential third missile test. Crude prices have hit a series of record highs this year partly over Iran.
The U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there had been no information to substantiate a rumor of a third test. She said the United States was still investigating details of the second launch.
"What we were seeing here is there was a round of tests first, then later in the day, Wednesday Iran time, there was a much smaller second test," she said.
Iran's state-run English and Arabic language satellite channels, which have been swift in reporting previous missile launches, gave no indication of a third missile test in news bulletins late on Thursday.
Iran has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for Gulf oil exports, if it is attacked. Thursday's exercises involved divers, speedboats and the launch of a high-speed torpedo called Hout, state media said.
China urged restraint, and did not echo Western rebukes over the missile firings. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said he welcomed the prospect of fresh talks on the nuclear program. Iran is China's third biggest crude oil supplier.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have offered Iran incentives to curb its nuclear work. Tehran rejects their demand to suspend uranium enrichment.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to meet Iranian officials for talks on the package, but no time or place has been announced.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the six powers would be "extremely precise" on the issue of enrichment. "Yes to dialogue, but there must be an answer on uranium enrichment, halting it," he said.
China and Russia, which is building Iran's first, and so far only, nuclear power plant, have been resisting U.S.-led calls for expanding U.N. sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Sanctions have made Western firms increasingly wary of investment. France's Total said on Thursday it would not invest for now in a big gas deal due to the risk. Iran brushed off the impact, saying it has enough cash from oil to carry out the project itself or find other interested parties.
"We will proceed with development with or without them," Iranian Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari told journalists when asked about the latest comments from Total.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Zahra Hosseini and Hashem Kalantari, Francois Murphy in Paris, Randall Mikkelsen and David Morgan in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Tbilisi; Writing by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Jon Boyle and Frances Kerry)
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