TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran test-fired missiles on Monday which a commander said could reach any regional target, flexing its military muscle before crucial talks this week with major powers worried about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The missile drills of the elite Revolutionary Guards coincide with escalating tension in Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West, after last week’s disclosure by Tehran that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant.
News of the nuclear fuel facility south of Tehran added urgency to the rare meeting in Geneva on Thursday between Iranian officials and representatives of six major powers, including the United States, China and Russia.
The White House called the missile tests “provocative” and reiterated demands by President Barack Obama at the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh last week that Iran come clean on its disputed nuclear program.
“They can agree to immediate unfettered access (to the newly disclosed nuclear facility),” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters when asked what Washington wants from the talks. “That would be the least that they could do.”
“There has never been a stronger international consensus to address Iran and its nuclear program than there is right now,” he added.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry said there was no link between the missile maneuvers and the nuclear activities.
“This is a military drill which is deterrent in nature,” spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told a news conference. “There is no connection whatsoever with the nuclear program.”
Press TV said the Shahab 3 surface-to-surface missile, with a range of up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles), was “successfully” test-fired on the second day of an exercise that began on Sunday, when short and medium-range missiles were launched.
Such a range would put Israel and U.S. bases in the region within striking distance. Television footage of the launches showed missiles soaring into the sky in desert-like terrain, to shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest).
“All targets within the region, no matter where they are, will be within the range of these missiles,” General Hossein Salami, commander of the Guards’ air force, was quoting as saying on the Guards website.
Salami later told Iranian state television: “All of our enemies must know that we constantly envision ourselves to be in an atmosphere of threat. And we have prepared ourselves for the worst case scenario.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the missile test was “part of an annual provocation” by Iran and should not distract from the pending Geneva talks.
“On Thursday (Iran will) need to ... show that they are serious about ensuring that their civilian nuclear power program does not leak into a military program,” Miliband told Britain’s Sky News.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called the tests “troublesome.”
“You combine these show-of-force type missile tests along with the other revelations that have been brought to light over the last couple of days with their continued development of a nuclear program, and you put all those together, and it paints a picture of ... a pattern of deception,” Whitman said.
He added that the United States and other nations were focused on the talks “to see if there is a way forward diplomatically and, if not, then what the next steps might be.”
European foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who will head the Western delegation in Geneva, said the aim of Thursday’s talks was to engage Iran in a “real discussion” and get a commitment to continue talks in a “dynamic manner.”
“Failure is clear -- if there is no more meetings it’s failure -- that would be very obvious to notice. Success is more difficult to judge,” Solana said on the sidelines of an EU defense ministers’ meeting in Sweden.
France called on Iran “to choose the path of cooperation and not that of confrontation by immediately ending these profoundly destabilizing activities and by immediately responding to the requests of the international community in order to reach a negotiated solution on the nuclear dossier.”
Russia, meanwhile, urged restraint.
“Of course, it is worrisome when missile launches happen against the backdrop of unresolved situation concerning Iran’s nuclear program,” Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in New York.
“I am convinced restraint is needed,” Lavrov said, adding that he told Mottaki that Iran should cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency in investigating the construction of the new nuclear plant.
The reports did not specify whether Lavrov meant restraint by Iran or the West.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Friday that if Iran does not cooperate at the meeting, then “other mechanisms” should be used to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program. Medvedev did not explicitly say whether Russia would support Western calls for sanctions against Iran.
The United States and its Western allies have made clear they will focus on Iran’s nuclear program at the Geneva meeting. Iran has offered wide-ranging security talks but says it will not discuss its nuclear “rights.”
Washington suspects Iran is trying to develop nuclear bomb capability and has previously expressed concern about Tehran’s missile program. Iran, a major oil producer, says its nuclear work is solely for generating peaceful electricity.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who says any military action against Iran would only “buy time” and stresses the need for diplomacy, mentioned possible new sanctions on banking and equipment and technology for Iran’s oil and gas industry.
Gates told CNN he hoped the disclosure of the second facility would force Tehran to make concessions. “The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers,” he said.
“There obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. I think we have the time to make that work.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran must present “convincing evidence” at the Geneva meeting.
“We are going to put them to the test on October 1,” Clinton told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Both interviews were taped before Iran started the two-day missile exercise, designed to show it is prepared to head off military attacks by foes like Israel or the United States.
Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB said “upgraded” versions of Shahab 3 and another missile, Sejil, had been tested. Officials have earlier said Sejil has a range of close to 2,000 km (1,250 miles). They were powered by solid fuel, IRIB said.
Neither the United States nor its ally Israel have ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the issue.
Iran has said it would respond to any attack by targeting U.S. interests in the region and Israel, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for world oil supplies.
Iran’s defense minister warned Israel on Monday against launching any attack on the Islamic Republic, saying it would only speed up the Jewish state’s own demise.
“If this happens, which of course we do not foresee, its ultimate result would be that it expedites the Zionist regime’s last breath,” Ahmad Vahidi said on state television.
Obama said on Saturday the discovery of a secret nuclear plant in Iran showed a “disturbing pattern” of evasion by Tehran. He warned Iran on Friday it could face “sanctions that bite” if it did not comply with demands for disclosure.
Iran has rejected Western accusations that the plant was meant to be secret because it did not inform the U.N. nuclear watchdog as soon as plans were drawn up, saying the facility near the holy city of Qom is legal and can be inspected.
Reporting by Tehran and Washington bureaus, Avril Ormsby in London, Conor Humphries and Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow and David Brunnstrom in Gothenburg; writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Dominic Evans and Paul Simao