Iran Tests Short-Range Missiles Before Nuclear Talks

By MARC CHAMPION in Brussels, JAY SOLOMON in Washington and CHIP CUMMINS in Dubai

Iran said it tested short-range missiles in a defiant gesture ahead of talks on its nuclear program, as diplomats noted Tehran is on the defensive over a hidden facility -- but the threat of international sanctions remains uncertain.

The missile exercise, which Iran labeled "Great Prophet 4," came on the heels of last week's revelation of what had been a secret uranium-enrichment plant near Qom, in north-central Iran.Diplomats familiar with preparations for talks in Geneva Thursday say the Qom facility has transformed the outlook for the talks. It has given negotiators from the U.S. and its allies greater leverage to persuade Tehran to accept a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal that it previously rejected, the diplomats said. Under that proposal Tehran would temporarily halt expansion of its nuclear-fuel program in exchange for no new United Nations sanctions, while a new round of wide-ranging talks begins.

A week ago, diplomats had been downbeat about prospects for the talks, after Russia had said it would block any meaningful new sanctions. That appeared to give Iran little incentive to agree to freeze its nuclear expansion. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reopened the door to sanctions after the Qom facility's existence was revealed.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that Iran was now in a "very bad spot" internationally. Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," he said there was an "opportunity for severe additional sanctions." On CBS's "Face the Nation," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she doubts Iran will be able to a peaceful nature for its program. "We are going to put them to the test on October 1st," she said.

But the stance of key players Russia and China remained murky over the weekend. Each holds a Security Council veto over sanctions.

U.S. officials rejoiced at the strong Russian rhetoric from Mr. Medvedev last week. But some Western diplomats noted the Kremlin has shifted its rhetorical tone in the past as well. "Russia's position fluctuates within a band, going in cycles," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a government-sponsored journal. "Now the pendulum has shifted toward more pressure. ... If it gets to discussion of actual sanctions, there will be all kinds of differences" with the U.S. and other Western powers.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, widely viewed as more powerful than Mr. Medvedev -- and more skeptical of U.S. intentions -- hasn't said a word on about Qom. That, according to diplomats, is unusual on a major foreign-policy issue. And even Mr. Medvedev used gentler language last week than his Western counterparts.

China's reaction has been muted thus far. In a statement, the foreign ministry reiterated its stance that nonproliferation should be achieved "peacefully through negotiations." But there also are signs that China's leaders could be willing to take a tougher stance. "We have to keep it clear, commitment to nuclear nonproliferation is China's bottom line," said Yin Gang, a scholar at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies of the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. With Iran flouting previous United Nations efforts, patience is running thin, he said, and Iran shouldn't count on China's unconditional support if diplomacy fails. If "a military attack cannot be avoided, I don't think China has the power to stop such [a] military attack," said Mr. Yin. Though China and Iran are old friends, "it doesn't mean that Iran could expect that when it comes to the nuclear issues, [China's] interests are bound together with Iran's," he added.

Still, China is the world's second-biggest oil consumer after the U.S., and the Persian Gulf country is one of Beijing's biggest suppliers, making its agreement to significant energy-related sanctions problematic. Chinese imports of Iranian crude grew to 13 million metric tons in the first half of the year, about 15% of China's total, and up 22% from a year earlier, according to government data. With its growing middle class, China already depends on imports for half of its oil needs and that ratio will increase.

U.S. officials said Sunday the question of Tehran quickly allowing U.N. inspectors into the facility at Qom is now high on Thursday's agenda. Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, of the Qom site on Monday, and has said it will allow inspectors in, though it hasn't said when.

Other Western diplomats involved in the process were more cautious. The freeze-for-freeze proposal remains Thursday's major goal, a diplomat familiar with the preparations said, adding that the meeting is likely to be just the start of a "phased process."

Sunday's missile launch -- which Iran said would be followed by tests of medium- and long-range missiles by Monday -- followed a familiar pattern. In July 2008, under pressure to accept the previous freeze-for-freeze proposal, Iran also announced a missile test, called "Great Prophet 3."

Iran state television said Monday the Revolutionary Guard fired one of the longest-range missiles in its arsenal in a third round of tests meant to demonstrate the country's preparedness for an attack.

English-language Press TV said the Guard successfully tested the Shahab-3 missile, which is capable of carrying a warhead. It has a range of up to 1,200 miles, capable of striking Israel and U.S. Mideast bases and parts of Europe.

State television said Iran test-fired Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles overnight, following tests of short-range missiles early Sunday. The Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 have ranges of about 185 miles and 435 miles respectively.


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