Iran says test-fires missiles over threats of attack


Iran said on Tuesday it had successfully tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israel as a response to threats of attack, the latest move in a war of nerves with the West.

Israel says it could attack Iran if diplomacy fails to secure a halt to its disputed nuclear energy programme. The United States also has military force as a possible option but has repeatedly encouraged the Israelis to be patient while new economic sanctions are implemented against Iran.

The Islamic Republic announced the “Great Prophet 7” missile exercise on Sunday after a European embargo against Iranian crude oil purchases took full effect following another fruitless round of big power talks with Tehran.

Iran’s official English-language Press TV said the Shahab 3 missile with a range of 1,300 km (800 miles) – able to reach Israel – was tested along with the shorter-range Shahab 1 and 2.

“The main aim of this drill is to demonstrate the Iranian nation’s political resolve to defend vital values and national interests,” Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander Hossein Salami was quoted by Press TV as saying.

He said the tests were in response to Iran’s enemies who talk of a “military option being on the table”.

On Sunday, Iran threatened to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth” if the Jewish state attacked it.

Analysts have challenged some of Iran’s military assertions, saying it often exaggerates its capabilities.

Senior researcher Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Iran’s missiles were still relatively inaccurate and of limited use in conventional warfare. With conventional warheads, “their only utility is as a tool of terror and no more than that”, he said by telephone.

He added, however, that they could be suitable for carrying nuclear warheads, especially the larger ones.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a 2010 report that all Tehran’s ballistic missiles were “inherently capable of a nuclear payload”, if Iran was able to make a small enough bomb.

Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability. The world’s No. 5 oil exporter maintains that it is enriching uranium only to generate more energy for a rapidly growing population.

OIL MARKETS ON EDGE

Iran has previously threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes, in response to increasingly harsh sanctions by the United States and its allies intended to force it to curb its nuclear research programme.

Fars said dozens of missiles involved in this week’s exercises had been aimed at simulated air bases, and that Iranian-built unmanned drones would be tested on Wednesday.

Iran repeated its claim to be reverse-engineering the sophisticated U.S. RQ-170 drone that it says it brought down during a spying mission last year.

“In this drone there are hundreds of technologies used, each of which are valuable to us in terms of operations, information and technicalities,” General Amir Hajizadeh was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying.

Wezeman said Iran had a large standing armed force, but that its weapons were generally outdated. “And those weapons only get older and older and they don’t have access to new technology because they are under a United Nations arms embargo.”

In his first comments since the European Union oil ban took force, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said sanctions would benefit Iran by lessening its dependence on crude exports.

“We must see the sanctions as an opportunity … which can forever take out of the enemy’s hands the ability to use oil as a weapon for sanctions,” Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme continued in Istanbul on Tuesday with a meeting of technical experts from Iran and six world powers.

The discussions follow a round of political talks in Moscow last month at which the sides failed to bridge differences or agree on a further round of talks at that level.

The experts have no mandate to strike agreements but the six powers – the United States, China, Britain, Germany, France and Russia – hope that by clarifying technical aspects of Tehran’s work they can open way for more negotiations in the future.

Diplomats in Istanbul said discussions in the Turkish capital were “detailed” and would most likely be followed by a meeting between a senior negotiator from the European Union and Iran’s deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri. Such a meeting could, at a later date, be a prelude to talks on a political level, diplomats have said.

“We hope Iran will seize the opportunity … to show a willingness to take concrete steps to urgently meet the concerns of the international community,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the meeting. Ashton and her team represent the six powers in dealings with Iran.

As a priority, the powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to levels close to weapons-grade, ship out any stockpile, and close a secret facility where such work is done.

Iran denies its programme has a military dimension and wants relief from economic sanctions before it makes any concessions.

IRANIAN CALL TO SHUT OIL LANES

On Monday, Iranian parliamentarians proposed a bill calling for Iran to try to stop tankers taking crude through the Strait of Hormuz to countries that support the sanctions.

However, the Iranian parliament is relatively weak, analysts say, and the proposal has no chance of becoming law unless sanctioned by Iran’s clerical supreme leader.

That is seen as unlikely in the near term given that Western powers have said they would tolerate no closure of the Strait while Iranian leaders, wedded to strategic pragmatism for the sake of survival, have said they seek no war with anyone.

“It’s a gesture at this stage,” said independent British-based Iran analyst Reza Esfandiari.

“They want to emphasise that Iran can make life difficult for Europe and America. I think this is more of an attempt to offset falling crude prices. Financial markets are very sensitive to such talk.”

On Tuesday, the price of Brent crude, which has been on a downward trend for the last three months, broke $100 for the first time since early June.

“A lot depends on nuclear talks,” said Esfandiari. “If there’s no progress and the initiative is deadlocked, then these kind of actions will intensify.”

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Kevin Liffey and Michael Roddy

Iran threatens Israel; new EU sanctions take force


Iran announced missile tests on Sunday and threatened to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth” if the Jewish state attacked it, brandishing some of its starkest threats on the day Europe began enforcing an oil embargo and harsh new sanctions.

The European sanctions – including a ban on imports of Iranian oil by EU states and measures that make it difficult for other countries to trade with Iran – were enacted earlier this year but mainly came into effect on July 1.

They are designed to break Iran’s economy and force it to curb nuclear work that Western countries say is aimed at producing an atomic weapon. Reporting by Reuters has shown in recent months that the sanctions have already had a significant effect on Iran’s economy.

Israel says it could attack Iran if diplomacy fails to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear aims. The United States also says military force is on the table as a last resort, but U.S. officials have repeatedly encouraged the Israelis to be patient while new sanctions take effect.

Washington said the EU’s oil ban might force Tehran to give ground at the next round of nuclear talks, scheduled for this week in Istanbul.

Announcing three days of missile tests in the coming week, Revolutionary Guards General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said the exercises should be seen as a message “that the Islamic Republic of Iran is resolute in standing up to … bullying, and will respond to any possible evil decisively and strongly.”

Any attack on Iran by Israel would be answered resolutely: “If they take any action, they will hand us an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth,” said Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ airborne division, according to state news agency IRNA.

The missile tests will target mock-ups of air bases in the region, Hajizadeh said, adding that its ability to strike U.S. bases in the Gulf protects Iran from U.S. support for Israel.

“U.S. bases in the region are within range of our missiles and weapons, and therefore they certainly will not cooperate with the regime,” he told IRNA.

Iran has repeatedly unnerved oil markets by threatening reprisals if it were to be attacked or its trade disrupted.

The threat against the Jewish state echoed words President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke in 2005, saying Israel “must be wiped off the page of time” – a phrase often translated as “wiped off the map” and cited by Israel to show how allowing Iran to get nuclear arms would be a threat to its existence.

The EU ban on Iranian oil imports directly deprives Iran of a market that bought 18 percent of its exports a year ago. The sanctions also bar EU companies from transporting Iranian crude or insuring shipments, hurting its trade worldwide.

“They signal our clear determination to intensify the peaceful diplomatic pressure,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.

The EU sanctions come alongside stringent new measures imposed by Washington this year on third countries doing business with Iran. The United States welcomed the EU sanctions as an “essential part” of diplomatic efforts “to seek a peaceful resolution that addresses the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he hoped the sanctions would force Tehran to make concessions in technical-level talks with six world powers later this week.

MALICIOUS POLICIES

“Iran has an opportunity to pursue substantive negotiations, beginning with expert level talks this week in Istanbul, and must take concrete steps toward a comprehensive resolution of the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear activities,” Carney said in a statement.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – foes of Iran which face it across the oil-rich Gulf – announced their own joint air force exercises on Sunday which they said would take “several days,” their state news agencies reported.

In three rounds of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the Western powers have demanded Tehran halt high-grade uranium enrichment, ship out all high-grade uranium and close a key enrichment facility.

The talks lost steam at the last meeting in Moscow last month and there was not enough common ground for negotiators to agree whether to meet again. Officials – but not political decision-makers – meet in Turkey on Tuesday.

Washington sees the sanctions and talks as a potential way out of the standoff to avert the need for military action, but has not said it would block Israel from attacking Iran.

Tehran says it has a right to peaceful nuclear technologies and is not seeking the bomb. It accuses nuclear-armed states of hypocrisy. Officials said they were taking steps to reduce the economic impact of the new sanctions.

“We are implementing programs to counter sanctions and we will confront these malicious policies,” Mehr news agency quoted Iranian central bank governor Mahmoud Bahmani as saying.

Bahmani has struggled to prevent a plunge in the value of the rial currency and steadily rising inflation as the sanctions have taken effect. He said the effects of the sanctions were tough but that Iran had built up $150 billion in foreign reserves to protect its economy.

Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi said oil importing countries would be the losers if the sanctions lead to price rises.

“All possible options have been planned in government to counter sanctions,” Qasemi said on the ministry’s website.

Last Friday, another Revolutionary Guards commander, Ali Fadavi, said Iran would equip its ships in the Strait of Hormuz – the neck of the Gulf and a vital oil transit point – with shorter-range missiles.

Additional reporting by Marcus George and Isabel Coles in Dubai and by Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Peter Graff

Israel says clock ticking after Iran talks fail


Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

With diplomacy at an impasse, there is satisfaction among Israeli leaders at what they see as a tough line taken by the West in the negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli political sources said on Thursday.

A member of the British negotiating team quietly visited Israel on Wednesday to brief officials on this week’s Moscow talks, the sources said, and new U.S. and European sanctions against Iran are due to come into effect in the next two weeks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.

“I don’t want to pretend to set timelines for the world,” he said, “but we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it (also) cannot be a matter of years”.

Preparations for any strike against Iran, which Israel and Western powers suspect is trying to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, are closely guarded in Israel.

But Barak said that even in the United States, which has counseled against jumping the gun while a diplomatic drive with Iran is under way, “at least on a technical level, there are a lot of preparations”.

Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – failed to secure a breakthrough in Moscow at what was the third round of the latest diplomatic initiative, and set no date for more political talks.

DEMANDS

Last month, and again in Moscow, the powers asked Iran to close the Fordow underground facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stockpile out of the country, demands that come close to Israel’s.

Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Wednesday.

“I explained that after the failure of the … talks in Moscow, the West must impose a full oil embargo on Iran and tough financial sanctions,” Mofaz said on his Facebook page, adding: “In parallel, preparations for other options must continue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the Moscow talks. He had complained that the months of talking had given Iran a “freebie” to continue enrichment.

The right-wing leader has been cautioned by former Israeli security chiefs against ordering attacks on Iran, amid skepticism about how effective Israeli air strikes would be.

Iran, which has called for Israel’s demise, says its nuclear program is designed for energy production alone. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to its existence.

Barak, in the newspaper interview, held out little hope that diplomacy would persuade Iran to bend.

“By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision,” he said.

“It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it’s up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.”

Weighing into the debate, Israeli President Shimon Peres told an audience in Jerusalem: “There’s not much time. If the Iranians … don’t heed the warnings, the calls and the economic sanctions, the world will look to other options.”

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Satellite images show crews hiding evidence at Iran nuclear site


New satellite images show possible recent nuclear activity at the Parchin facility in Iran as well as attempts to hide evidence of past activity.

A May 25 image of the facility east of Tehran revealed “ground-scraping activity” and the presence of bulldozers, according to diplomats quoted by international news services who attended a closed-door briefing by United Nations nuclear agency officials on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Institute for Science and International Security posted a similar image on its website. Its image showed that two buildings that previously had been located on the site were razed, according to reports.

Last March, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, the nuclear watchdog of the U.N., satellite images showed crews and vehicles cleaning up radioactive evidence of a test nuclear explosion.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Germany and Great Britain jointly called on Iran to grant inspectors access to the site. An IAEA report last year said that construction developments at Parchin are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” Iran has dismissed the charges against Parchin as “childish” and “ridiculous,” Reuters reported.

This most recent image is believed to be further evidence that Iran is “sanitizing” the site of any incriminating evidence before possibly allowing IAEA inspectors into the complex.

At Wednesday’s briefing, IAEA deputy director Gen. Herman Nackaerts presented the satellite images indicating that at least two small buildings had been removed.

Nackaerts did not elaborate on what he believed was happening at the site, apart from reiterating that the agency needed to go there to clarify the issue, diplomats told reporters.

Iran cleaning building of nuclear traces, U.S. institute alleges


New satellite imagery analyzed by a U.S. security think tank shows that Iran may be clearing nuclear evidence from a building at a military site.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security believes the Iranians are cleaning the inside of the the Parchin military complex near Tehran based on images taken last month by a commercial satellite imagery company. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has asked to visit the facility because it suspects that research on a nuclear weapon may have taken place there.

The building is believed to contain an explosive chamber used to carry out nuclear weapons-related experiments.

Satellite images taken in recent months did not show similar activity at the building, according to the institute.

The IAEA said in a report last year that it believed Iran had built a containment chamber at Parchin in which to conduct high-explosives tests, according to Reuters. It will ask Iran again next week during talks in Iran to allow inspectors to visit Parchin.

World powers to meet Iran in Istanbul this week


Nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers will be held this week in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced.

The talks announced Sunday are scheduled to be held April 14 in Istanbul and will include six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Also on Sunday, Iran said it will not close its Fordo nuclear power facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the holy city of Oom, and it will not give up higher-level uranium enrichment, which are reported to be key demands that the world powers will present at the meeting.

Those demands are “irrational,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, told ISNA news agency in an interview published Sunday.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground. They should change their behavior and language,” he told the official news agency.

The demands were revealed Saturday in a front-page New York Times article, which quoted anonymous United States and European Union diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Iran is using the upcoming talks to “delay and deceive.”

He called for Iran to dismantle Oom, completely halt uranium enrichment and remove higher level enriched uranium from the country.