Iran test-fired a solid-fuel missile capable of reaching Israel or US bases in the Middle East today, drawing rebukes from western governments and forcing the abrupt cancellation of a diplomatic mission by Italy‘s foreign minister.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the launch of the Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface missile in Semnan province, in northern Iran, claiming it landed “precisely on target”. The defence minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, said the missile was “equipped with a new navigation system as well as precise and sophisticated sensors”.
Western officials confirmed the launch and said the Sajjil appeared to be a two-stage solid-fuel missile with a range of about 1,250 miles (2,000km). The Foreign Office said it “underlines profound concerns about Iran’s intentions and sends exactly the wrong signal to the region and the world at a time the international community is trying to engage Iran”.
The incident came two days after Barack Obama warned Iran had until the end of the year to respond to his diplomatic overtures and enter into serious, “good faith” negotiations over its nuclear programme. Iran insists the programme is for energy-generation purposes, but the UN security council has demanded Tehran suspend enrichment of uranium on the grounds that Iran has so far failed to convince the international community that its intentions are peaceful.
The launch led to the cancellation of a two-day visit to Iran by Italy’s Franco Frattini, who was close to boarding a plane to Tehran when he heard that Ahmadinejad insisted on meeting him in Semnan, the site of the launch.
The minister called off the whole trip, fearing Ahmadinejad would use it as a propaganda coup ahead of presidential elections next month.
The president and three challengers were officially approved today to take part in the vote by the electoral watchdog, the Guardian Council, out of 475 hopefuls.
The planned Frattini visit had been the source of considerable tension within Europe. The British and French governments had urged him not to go, arguing that it would help Ahmadinejad electorally and show a lack of western unity.
An earlier version of the Sajjil was tested in November last year.The Sajjil-2 appears to have a slightly longer range than the prototype. Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the development of the Sajjil missile was significant because of the type of fuel it used, rather than its range.
“To be able to build a solid-fuel missile of medium range represents a significant technological breakthrough,” Fitzpatrick said. “It is technically more difficult than a liquid-fuel missile, and militarily more significant because it is not as vulnerable to attack while being fuelled.”