Iran said yesterday it had successfully test-fired what it called “long-range” missiles, capping 10 days of navy war games near the Strait of Hormuz that have raised tensions with the West and Gulf states.
The military muscle-flexing was apparently designed to show Iran could cause global economic havoc by disrupting shipping in the strategic waterway at the mouth of the Gulf, through which a third of the world’s tanker-borne oil passes.
Analysts say Iran’s sabre-rattling was probably aimed at strengthening its bargaining position before possible new talks with world powers about its nuclear activities, which the West believes are aimed at weapons development, a charge Tehran denies.
A report on state-run television declared one of the missiles fired was an Iranian-designed radar-evading, “shore-to-ship” cruise missile called Qader (Capable). Another was a surface-to-surface missile called Nour (Light), based on a Chinese design.
Each has a range of 200 kilometres, making them short-range. Even so, they could reach the other side of the Gulf from Iran’s south-western port of Bandar Abbas.
Iran’s state-run media said these war games were more extensive than before, but there was no repeat of its 2009 test-firing of the Shahab-3, a surface-to-surface ballistic missile that can reach targets up to 1,000km away, putting US military bases in range. Iran’s arsenal also includes missiles with a range of up to 2,400km that could hit Israel.
Tehran’s aim instead was apparently to demonstrate its ability to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a high-risk move that could trigger a military conflict with western powers.
The US, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, has warned it would not tolerate the strait’s closure, and Britain has four Royal Navy minesweepers and a frigate in the Gulf to ensure the safe passage of oil shipping.
The US is supporting its Gulf allies with arms sales. In recent days it approved a $3.5 billion (Dh12.85bn) deal to supply the UAE with an advanced anti-missile interception system. Washington is also selling Saudi Arabia $29.4bn worth of F-15 fighter jets.
Amid the war games, on Sunday Tehran defiantly announced a breakthrough in its nuclear programme.
It said it had produced and tested the country’s first nuclear fuel rod, which western experts believed was beyond Iran’s capabilities.
Analysts said Iran’s display of bravado was in part intended to boost morale at home, where people are struggling as sanctions hit the economy and the regime’s ruling hardliners are locked in a bitter power struggle.
Tehran threatened last week that it would block the Strait of Hormuz if the West embargoes its oil exports.
Undeterred, the US has imposed its toughest sanctions on Tehran. They enable Washington to blacklist any foreign entity that deals with Iran’s central bank, the conduit for most Iranian oil contracts.
The European Union could go even further when its foreign ministers meet this month to consider banning Iranian oil imports.
Iran’s currency has slumped more than 12 per cent in street trading since Washington activated the new sanctions.
Tehran, perhaps deliberately to keep its adversaries guessing, has sent mixed messages in the past week about the Strait of Hormuz. A commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard, General Masoud Jazayeri, said on Saturday that Tehran would not block the strait for now. A day later, a prominent MP, Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, described the war games as a rehearsal for closing the waterway.
Iran would devastate its own economy by shutting the strait, which it also relies on for vital petroleum imports, and it would cost invaluable diplomatic support from Russia and China.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said on Saturday his country would propose a new round of talks with the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Analysts doubt they will be any more successful than the last round of negotiations in Turkey 13 months ago.
“The world powers are showing no sign they’re willing to give Iran a ladder to climb down,” said a senior western official. “And Iran’s instinct when it is challenged, as it is now very severely being with sanctions, is to up the ante.”