TEHRAN, Iran - A two-day Iranian show of force through the launching of medium- and long-range test missiles was meant to strike fear in the hearts of the country's rivals.
Instead, many officials and experts played down Iranian war games near the Persian Gulf as more propaganda than peril yesterday. News reports emerged indicating that Iran had doctored a photo of the launches, and experts questioned whether the tests revealed any new Iranian capability to strike Israel or other U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East.
Iran is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, which it insists is meant for peaceful power generation. The United States, Israel and most arms-control experts suspect that the nuclear capability is meant as a potential cornerstone of an eventual weapons program.
Iran launched missiles near the Persian Gulf on Wednesday after reports emerged that Israel had staged a major dry run of a possible attack on Iranian nuclear sites in June and that U.S. warships began practicing a scenario this week to stop Iran's military from closing off the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil supply passes.
State news media reported that Iran set off a second set of missiles last night, of which state-controlled television showed grainy images. Lt. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said yesterday that the rocket launches "contributed to the authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran and at the same time gave an admonishing lesson to our enemies."
The missile tests spooked oil markets and raised fears of further escalation of the confrontation between Iran and the U.S. Washington urged Iran to halt the "provocative" missile tests after Iran claimed to have launched three missiles early yesterday that it said were impervious to sophisticated radar.
A U.S. intelligence official said the exercises appeared to be in response to recent Israeli military exercises.
"When the Iranians see exercises in the region, this is their way of saying, 'Look, we have capabilities, too,'" said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments. "There does seem to be at a minimum a great deal of signaling going on here. But in terms of dramatic new capabilities from the Iranians, that hasn't been seen to this point."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a trip to the Reoublic of Georgia, noted U.S. efforts to increase its security presence in the Persian Gulf and the defense capabilities of its allies there. "We take very, very strongly our obligations to help our allies defend themselves, and no one should be confused about that," she said.
Rice's trip to Eastern Europe began with a celebration of U.S plans to base anti-missile defenses in countries once under the Soviet hand. It ended with a public display of close U.S. ties to Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, a Russian nemesis.
Some arms-control experts said the missile barrages might have been just for show. Iran's conventional weapons arsenal is little match for U.S. and Israeli precision weapons, antimissile batteries and air power, analysts said, and it apparently unveiled no new weapons.
"This event is the latest scene in regional theatrics and represents Iranian chest-thumping," said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School, in an e-mail message.
Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.