TEHRAN, Iran - Iran conducted missile tests yesterday as its leadership stepped up warnings of a possible military confrontation with the United States.
The drum-beating suggested Iran does not intend to back down in its standoff with the West. It also could be an effort to rally the public behind the government and silence increasingly bold criticism at home of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's antagonism toward the United States.
Iran's leaders have touted the possibility of a U.S. attack since President Bush announced on Jan. 9 the deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the gulf region, a move U.S. officials have said is a show of strength directed at Iran.
Yesterday, the Iranian military began five days of maneuvers near the northern city of Garmsar, about 60 miles southeast of Tehran, state television reported. The military tested its Zalzal-1 and Fajr-5 missiles, the report said.
The Zalzal-1, able to carry a 1,200-pound payload, has a range of 200 miles. That would put Iraq, U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, and eastern Saudi Arabia in its range. The Fajr-5, with a 1,800-pound payload, has a range of 35 miles.
Neither could reach Israel, but Iran has other missiles that can. It was not known whether the missiles tested were capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The Iranian show of strength came as the aircraft carrier USS Stennis was heading toward the Gulf, joining the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in a beefed-up U.S. military presence. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February.
The United States also is deploying Patriot missiles and nuclear submarines to the Persian Gulf and F-16 fighter planes to the Incirlik base in neighboring Turkey.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the buildup was aimed at convincing Iran that the four-year war in Iraq has not made the United States vulnerable.
Washington and its allies accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies the allegation, insisting its nuclear activities are aimed only at producing energy. The United States also has accused Iran of backing extremists who are fueling Iraq's violence.
The U.S. buildup has sparked loud warnings from Iranian officials that the United States will attack.
U.S. officials have long refused to rule out any options in the faceoff with Iran, but say military action would be a last resort.
In the last few days, hard-line Iranian newspapers have threatened suicide attacks against U.S. targets and said missiles fired from Iran would turn Israel into "a scorching hell" if the United States took military action.
One of the papers that carried the threats yesterday is close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggesting the highest levels are involved in sounding the alarm over the U.S. deployment.
Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran was "ready for anything" in its confrontation with the United States.
Iranian reformers and conservatives, who once were allies of Ahmadinejad, now accuse him of hurting Iran with his virulent anti-U.S. rhetoric, while failing to repair Iran's weakening economy. Rising prices also have fueled anger against the president.
Iran has barred 38 nuclear inspectors on a U.N. list from entering the country, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday in what appeared to be retaliation for the U.N. sanctions imposed last month.
The rejected officials are on a list of potential inspectors drawn up by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran's nuclear facilities.
"The act of rejecting some inspectors is legal and in accordance with the agency's regulations," Mottaki told the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He said others on the IAEA list remained eligible, but did not explain how Iran had decided which inspectors to bar.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council imposed limited trade sanctions on Iran over its refusal to cease uranium enrichment, a process that can produce material for nuclear energy or bombs.
Days later, the Iranian parliament passed a motion that obliged the government to revise its cooperation with the IAEA, but gave it a free hand to determine the steps to be taken.