By ALI AKBAR DAREINI and NASSER KARIMI
Iranian military leaders gave details of a new long-range drone and test fired four anti-ship missiles Tuesday in a prelude to upcoming naval war games planned in an apparent response to U.S.-led warship drills in the Persian Gulf.
The show of Iranian military readiness and its latest tool _ a domestically made drone capable of reaching Israel and most of the Middle East _ also came as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday amid a deepening impasse with the West over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad on Monday held open hope for renewed dialogue with the United States, but told reporters in New York that Iran was “fully ready” to defend itself from attacks. In Tehran, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, also warned that U.S. bases in the Gulf could face retaliatory strikes if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites.
The West and its allies fear Iran’s uranium enrichment program could lead to atomic weapons, but the U.S. and others favor a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to try to force Tehran to curb its nuclear program. Iran claims it only seeks nuclear power for energy and medical applications.
On Tuesday, Hajizadeh described the new drone as a key strategic additional to Iran’s military capabilities with the ability to carry out reconnaissance missions or be armed with “bombs and missiles.”
Hajizadeh, who heads the Guard’s aerospace division, said the Shahed-129, or Witness-129, has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). That covers much of the Middle East including Israel and nearly doubles the range of previous drones produced by Iranian technicians, who have often relied on reverse engineering military hardware with the country under Western embargoes.
But it’s unclear whether the new drone contains any elements of an unmanned CIA aircraft that went down in eastern Iran in December. Iran said it has recovered data from the RQ-170 Sentinel and claimed it was building its own replica.
Iran frequently makes announcements about its strides in military technology, but it is virtually impossible to independently determine the actual capabilities or combat worthiness of the weapons Iran is producing.
Near the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, Iran test fired four missiles it claimed could sink a “big target” such as a warship in 50 seconds, Gen. Ali Fadavi of the powerful Revolutionary Guard was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.
The Fars report late Monday was the first indication of an Iranian military exercise taking place at the same time as the U.S.-led naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, including mine-sweeping drills, which got under way last week.
The U.S. Navy claims the maneuvers are not directly aimed at Iran, but the West and its regional allies have made clear they would react against attempts by Tehran to carry out threats to try to close critical Gulf oil shipping lanes in retaliation for tighter sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.
Fadavi did not elaborate on the ongoing Iranian exercise or the type of missiles fired, but said the Guard is planning a “massive naval maneuver in the near future” in the strait, which is the route for one-fifth of the world’s crude oil.
Iran regularly holds maneuvers to upgrade its military readiness as well as test its equipment.