Iranian Gulf missile drill seen as show of force


TEHRAN – Iran will fire long-range missiles during a naval drill in the Gulf today, a semi-official news agency reported, a show of force at a time when the country has threatened to close shipping lanes if the West imposes sanctions on its oil exports.

Iran threatened on Tuesday to stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if it became the target of an oil export embargo over its nuclear ambitions, a move that could trigger military conflict with countries dependent on Gulf oil.

“The Iranian navy will test several kinds of its missiles, including its long-range missiles, in the Persian Gulf on Saturday,” Adm Mahmoud Mousavi, deputy commander of the Iranian navy, told Fars news agency.

During military drills in 2009, Iran test-fired its surface-to-surface Shahab-3 missile, said to be capable of reaching reach Israel and US bases in the Middle East.

Washington has expressed concern about Tehran’s missiles, which include the Shahab-3 strategic intermediate range ballistic missile with a range of up to 1,000km, the Ghadr-1 with an estimated 1,600km range and a Shahab-3 variant known as Sajjil-2 with a range of up to 2,400km.

Iran began a 10-day naval drill in the Gulf last Saturday to show its resolve to counter any attack by enemies such as Israel or the US.

Iranian media has said the exercise differs from previous ones in terms of “the vastness of the area of action and the military equipment and tactics that are being employed”.

The US and Israel have said they do not rule out military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is peaceful but which the West says is a cover to build a bomb.

Iran has said it would respond to any attack by targeting US interests in the region and Israel, as well as by closing the Strait of Hormuz.

The US navy, whose fifth fleet is based in the Gulf island of Bahrain, said it would not accept any Iranian disruption of the flow of oil in the strategic waterway.

“The firing of missiles is the final part of the navy drill,” Adm Mousavi said. “The final phase of the drill is to prepare the navy for confronting the enemy in war situations.”

Navy commander Rear Adm Ali Rastegari also said “medium-range, short-range missiles and smart torpedoes” would be test-fired.

Tensions with the West have risen since the UN nuclear watchdog reported on November 8th that Iran appears to have worked on designing an atomic bomb and may still be pursuing research to that end. Iran denies this and says it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity to meet growing domestic demand.

Iran’s threat to close the strait to international shipping is being dismissed by western diplomats, who argue that such a move would end up further crippling the beleaguered Iranian economy.

However, Iran’s tough rhetoric also signals how tense diplomatic relations between Iran and the West could become over the next few weeks as the US and EU move to impose sanctions that for the first time will affect the country’s oil sector.

This week, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Iran’s first vice-president, warned that the country would not allow “even one drop of oil” to flow through the strait should the West impose oil sanctions on Tehran.

In London, diplomats have dismissed Mr Rahimi’s comments.

“Our judgment is that while the Iranians are proving unpredictable, they would not carry through such a threat,” a British diplomat said.

“It is not in their interests economically and politically and would isolate them still further in the international community,” the diplomat added.

Other western diplomats also take the view that a move to close off the Strait of Hormuz would create international tensions.

In their view, Iran is not in a position militarily to undertake such a confrontation, which would almost certainly meet retaliation at sea from the US and other states in the region.

Despite this, western states are well aware that the next few weeks will see a heightening of the war of words between Iran and the west as the US and EU are on the verge of an escalation of sanctions against the Iranian nuclear programme – one which will for the first time affect the real Iranian economy. – Reuters/The Financial Times Limited 2011