Iran's Missile Tests Create New Standoff

Experts say the U.S. does not want to attack Iran but could rally for sanctions.

ByMartha Raddatz
September 28, 2009, 6:46 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2009— -- The United States, Israel and its allies are condemning Iran's missile tests, conducted a few days after world leaders called out the country for building a secret underground nuclear facility. But Iran refuses to cave under world pressure, continuing its dangerous provocation instead.

In a show of defiance, Iran tested short- and long-range missiles today and Sunday, including its longest-range missiles yet, which U.S. experts said are capable of hitting Israel and U.S. bases in Europe.

"Obviously these were pre-planned military exercises," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "I would lump any of these into the provocative nature in which Iran has operated on the world stage for a number of years."

The latest move from the Iranian regime comes after President Obama revealed to the rest of the world last week that Iran was building a secret underground nuclear facility in the mountains near the city of Qom.

The White House and some of its allies, including France and Great Britain, are calling for immediate international inspection and "unfettered access" to the secret nuclear plant.

"I think that would be the least that they can do," Gibbs said at the daily White House press briefing. "They have decisions to make. ... They can continue the path that they've been on ... or it can make a decision to step away from its nuclear weapons program and build confidence in the world and... enter into a meaningful relationship with the world based on their own security, but not based on nuclear weapons."

The tests and revelation of the nuclear site could set a troubling precedent for Iran's relations with the rest of the world, experts said.

"I think we're going to see a step up of this confrontation going into the fall, and we could, at some point, enter the logic of war and bomb," Robert Baer, a former CIA official and author of "The Devil We Know," told "Good Morning America" today.

While the threat of war is unlikely (chief of staff Mike Mullen has said it's the last option) because of the fear of Iran retaliating and causing havoc in the region, the idea is not completely off the table.

The United States is working on a 15-ton, bunker-buster bomb that could do deep into the earth, nearly 60 yards down. But, while the weapon is nearly finished, the United States does not want to take that option.

The United States has warned of severe sanctions if Iran fails to comply with demands to let international nuclear inspectors visit the Qom facility, with Obama saying Friday that Iran will "have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice."

But that could be difficult because not all the members of the United Nations Security Council are likely to back the tough penalties Washington might want.

If Iran's trade partners are on board, severe sanctions could have a detrimental impact on Iran and its economy. If European nations get on board, they could block exports of cars, machinery and chemicals. If Russia, whose President Dmitry Medvedev said last week sanctions are unproductive but could be inevitable, also joins, it could block weapons sales. Seventy percent of Iran's weaponry comes from Russia.

And if China, the country that has so far been least committed to sanctions, joins, it could cut gasoline exports, which make up 40 percent of Iran's imports. The country is rich in natural gas but does not have modern gasoline refinement capacity.

But experts say even such stringent sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from provoking the world and to cause it to abandon its dream of a nuclear bomb.

"This regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard ... which runs the country, are very bloody minded and they would look at this as a challenge they are ready to meet," Baer said. "They will retaliate. ... They have a deterrence doctrine, which is looking at Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf."

The Revolutionary Guard eventually wants its own nuclear bomb, and if it has it, it would be in the hands of the hardliners, "which makes it much more dangerous," Baer said.

Secret Nuclear Site

At the G-20 summit Friday, Obama condemned Iran for not reporting its Qom facility to the International Atomic Energy Association.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years," the president said, alongside Great Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live," denied the project had anything to do with nuclear weapons.

"How can he possibly accuse us of secretly engaging in an activity that did not take place?" Ahmadinejad said.

The discovery last week prompted representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany to call a meeting in Geneva with Iranian officials Thursday to demand immediate access for international nuclear inspectors to visit the Qom facility.

"Words are not enough," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"They're going to have to come and demonstrate clearly to the international community what they're up to."

Baer said Iran is likely to resist letting in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and would consider it humiliating. "I just don't think they're going to sit down for this," he told "GMA."

U.S. officials said they have known about the secret facility for a while.

"We have been following this for several years in cooperation with some of our international partners, watching and assessing what the Iranians were doing," Clinton said. "And, then, when this became known, actually through the Iranians beginning to provide some information about it, we disclosed the fact and gave the information we had to the International Atomic Energy Agency."

She said that if Iran really intended the facility to be used for peaceful purposes, not weapons production, it would have been disclosed earlier.

"So I guess one has to ask, if it's for a peaceful purposes, why was it not public? Why was the fact of it not generally known instead of through our working with partners to discover it?" Clinton said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on ABC News' "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," "This is part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning, with respect to their nuclear program."

Gates would not say whether the United States is aware of other secret nuclear facilities in Iran. "I'm not going to get into that," he said. "I would just say that we're watching very closely."

There are three main reasons the secret site was built to manufacture fuel for nuclear bombs, U.S. officials said.

It was clear from satellite imagery that a facility was being constructed underground and heavily disguised. Also, it was built on a military base and protected by armed guards 24 hours a day. And intelligence information shows that it is designed to hold only about 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium -- not enough to fuel a civilian power plant, which would need around 50,000 centrifuges, but enough to make highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

Iran Proud of Missile Tests

After the tests Sunday, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Air Force said they were a success, and the country was ready to fight off attacks from any country.

"We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner and it doesn't make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression," state media quoted Gen. Hossein Salami as saying.

Iran insisted that the facility is part of a peaceful nuclear energy program but has not explained why the site was hidden and heavily guarded, and why it was not immediately reported to international regulators.

"For the Iranians themselves, this must be incredibly unsettling for them to know that Western intelligence agencies have penetrated state secrets," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But attacking Iran's nuclear site could open up a new can of worms. Not only would it create backlash against the United States, but according to a U.S. intelligence official, the Iranians have a decentralized system of nuclear sites all over the country, with no "single point of failure."

So if one site were taken out, others would still exist, which is a problem U.S. officials may be addressing for many more years to come.

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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