Iran Missile Tests Set Stage for Talks

U.S. to push for immediate inspections in Qom

Iran announced Monday that it had successfully test-fired two types of medium-range missiles on Sunday, just four days before a meeting with U.S. and other international officials to discuss the country’s nuclear programs and two days after President Barack Obama revealed the existence of a new uranium enrichment plant near Iran’s holy city of Qom.

The rapidly unfolding events gave U.S. and Iranian officials ample opportunity to engage in aggressive public posturing ahead of Thursday’s meeting in Geneva between top Iranian diplomats and officials from a group known as the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

Iranian officials said they expected the talks to focus on a wide range of issues — not just Iran’s nuclear program — while White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that during the meeting, the U.S. would push for international nuclear inspectors to have “immediate and unfettered access to Qom.”

“Understand this,” Gibbs told reporters. “There has never been a stronger international consensus to address Iran and their nuclear weapons program as there is now.” U.S. officials have said Iran faces the possibility of tough new economic sanctions if it does not negotiate in good faith.

It remains to be seen whether Russia and China, which have warmer diplomatic relations with Iran and deeper trade ties with the Islamic Republic, will back tougher sanctions, which they often have blocked in the Security Council.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday urged Iran to answer International Atomic Energy Agency questions about the new uranium enrichment facility.

Gibbs noted that Iran’s launch of the liquid-fueled Shahab-3 and solid-fueled Sejil-2 missiles on Sunday was “obviously provocative,” even though it was part of a planned military exercise by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He said the missile launchings validated the administration’s recent decision to cancel an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe. That decision was prompted by new intelligence reports showing that Iran’s development of long-range missiles was lagging behind its development of short- and medium-range missiles of the sort fired Sunday.

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi denied any link between the country’s new enrichment plant and the missile tests, saying the war games, code-named the Great Prophet IV, were “defensive and deterrent” in nature and meant to strengthen “stability, peace and cooperation.”

He said Iran “will hold constructive talks” in Switzerland if the other side demonstrates “goodwill.”

Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament and formerly the country’s top nuclear negotiator, said that Western powers were simply using disclosure of the new nuclear facility as an excuse to pressure Iran at the bargaining table, according to the Islamic Students News Agency.

“Such efforts are primarily designed to impose the Western will on Iran and force the country into submission during the upcoming negotiations,” he said.

Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported Monday that the Shahab-3 is capable of carrying a 760-to-1,000-kilogram warhead and has a range up to 1,250 miles, putting parts of Europe, Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East within its reach.

Obama has set the end of the year as a timetable for evaluating the U.S.-Iran relationship, and Thursday’s meeting will at the very least be a data point in deciding how and whether diplomacy will continue. It is a key opportunity for the United States to follow through on Obama’s pledge to “extend a hand” to adversaries such as Iran; the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, and its officials have rarely met face to face since then.

Iran claims its nuclear programs are strictly for the development of peaceful energy, but Western officials say the country is covertly aiming to build a nuclear bomb.

Iranian officials maintain they have complied with IAEA rules by notifying the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog about its new plant. U.S. officials say Iran made the notification last week only after discovering that Western countries already knew of the facility’s existence.

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