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World News

Israel tests missile after warnings to Iran

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel tested a missile on Thursday, prompting speculation about its ability to launch nuclear strikes on Iran following Israeli warnings and accusations about Tehran’s atomic ambitions.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated on Monday that he would consider “all options” to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons, a message he and his team had rammed home to George W. Bush when the U.S. president visited Jerusalem a week ago.

But analysts were divided on the significance of the test and the Defence Ministry gave only few details. A former Israeli missile expert said: “There are no messages”. But a serving defence official said Israel was “not just flexing its muscles”.

Iran’s president, who denies his country’s nuclear program has a military purpose, has in the past said the Jewish state should be “wiped off the map”. The latest sign of tension with Israel, which is widely assumed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, drove oil prices up by nearly 1 percent.

“The Zionists have reached the end of the line,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as telling a Palestinian ally, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, during a phone call to express concern at the latest violence in the Gaza Strip. Iran had no specific, immediate comment on the Israeli missile test.

Amateur photographs posted on Israeli news Web sites showed a white plume in the sky above central Israel -- suggesting a test of a large missile rather than of smaller, anti-missile defensive rockets that Israel is also believed to be developing.

Israel Radio, the public broadcaster, said the missile was capable of carrying an “unconventional payload” -- an apparent reference to the nuclear warheads Israel is assumed to possess, though whose existence it has never publicly confirmed.

In 1981, Israel sent jets to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor and last September bombed a site in Syria without explanation -- analysts speculated it was a military facility of some kind.

Security experts and Israeli sources do not rule out pre-emptive Israeli strikes on Iran, although Olmert’s political weakness and a recent U.S. intelligence report may have made that less likely. The U.S. report said Iran halted its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003 -- a conclusion rejected by Israel.

MISSILE DEVELOPMENT

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Israeli defence official said arms firms had stepped up missile work because of mounting tension with Iran. Bush devoted much of his week-long Middle East tour this month to rallying Arab support for U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear development program.

“This test is clearly political, coming after Bush’s visit,” said one source familiar with government thinking on the matter.

However, Uzi Rubin, a former official once closely involved in missile development, told Reuters: “Most of the time, missile tests don’t signify anything. The test signifies that you made something and now you want to check it. There are no messages, not political or security-related, and no hints being made.”

Israel believes Iran could have a nuclear bomb by 2010 and says an Iranian atomic weapon would threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons and says it is enriching uranium only for use in generating electricity.

In Russia, which has been helping Tehran build nuclear power plants, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said U.N. sanctions had failed to have a “critical” effect on Iran and urged world powers not to “allow the appearance of a nuclear Iran”.

In its brief statement, the Israeli Defence Ministry said only: “A successful missile launch was carried out within the framework of examining rocket propulsion.”

Israel Radio, which like all media in Israel operates under military censorship, quoted foreign reports as saying Israel is developing a long-range missile known as Jericho III.

Foreign analysts have said for many years that earlier types of the Jericho missile can carry nuclear warheads. Analysts say the Jericho missiles are a variant of the civilian Shavit missile which Israel uses to launch satellites into space.

The Jericho II was tested in 1989 over a distance of 1,300 km (800 miles), according to the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists. It said longer ranges may be possible. Tehran lies about 1,500 km (950 miles) from Jerusalem.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles Elgood

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