TEHRAN, March 8 (UPI) -- As the United States and other powers mull tightening economic sanctions on Iran, Tehran says it has begin mass production of cruise missiles -- just the thing to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Meantime, Iran's Fars news agency reports that the air force is taking delivery of a precision-guided bomb, identified as the 2,000-pound Qassed-1, Farsi for Herald, and that a new variant will be test-fired soon.
From London, the IHS Jane's information group reported that satellite imagery has uncovered that the Iranians are building a new launch pad at the Semnan Space Center east of Tehran, apparently in cooperation with North Korea.
It is believed to be intended to launch the Simorgh, or Phoenix, rocket, a space launch vehicle that can be adapted into a multistage intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The Iranian announcements regarding the anti-ship cruise missile, identified as the Nasr-1, or Victory, and the Qassed-2 are seen by most analysts as essentially a propaganda ploy to boost the regime's prestige domestically at a time of internal unrest.
It is also likely to be a move, one of several in recent months, by the regime to demonstrate that it has the weapons to respond to any attack, most probably by Israel or the United States, on its nuclear infrastructure.
It is impossible to independently verify the claims Iran makes regarding the new weapons systems it says it is developing but it is clearly preparing its military forces to retaliate against an assault.
This retaliation could take the form of missile attacks on U.S. or allied bases in the Gulf region or on Israel, or an attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only gateway in and out of the Persian Gulf.
One-fifth of the world's supplies pass through the narrow waterway. If Iran disrupted shipping there, oil prices would likely go through the roof and cause global economic havoc as the world struggles to recover from the recent economic meltdown.
Iran claimed it has developed and test-fired a score of new missiles over the last couple of years as tension mounted over its suspected drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Most Western analysts are skeptical of many of these claims but there seems little doubt that Iran's scientists, aided by North Korea, China and Russia, are mastering advanced missile and space technology, at an accelerating rate.
Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran's defense minister, told state-run Iranian television Sunday that the production line for the Nasr-1 had begun. He described the system as highly accurate, short-range missile capable of sinking ships of up to 3,000 tons.
At present, it can only be fired from land bases but would eventually be carried by helicopters and submarines as well, he said.
TV shows film of what was described as a 2007 cruise missile test in Iran and video footage of boxes containing white missiles with red nosecones and clearly marked "Nasr" in English. There was no explanation why the missiles would have English markings.
Regarding the Qassed, air force commander Gen. Hassan Shahsafi said the current version was first test-fired in 2006 and went into service a year later.
"The new version will be test-fired soon," he said, without giving details of the system.
According to the Iranian media, production of two indigenous missiles with enhanced armor penetration capability, including Toufan-5 anti-tank missiles, began in February.
The reported discovery of the launch pad under construction at Semnan is likely to emerge as the most important of the recent weapons developments in Iran because of its strategic implications.
Jane's said the new facility, 6 miles northeast of the main Semnan installation, was spotted Feb. 6 by a WorldView-2 satellite and is estimated to be halfway toward completion.
It includes a gantry tower 43 feet wide and about 54-60 feet tall with a "cliffside flame bucket as high as the tower itself," resembling North Korea's new launch at Tiongchang and pointing to collaboration with Pyongyang.
Jane's said it could easily accommodate the 81-foot-long Simorgh if the gantry was extended slightly. Iran unveiled the Simorgh Feb. 3.
It is likely to be the successor to the Shehab-3B and more advanced Sejjil intermediate-range ballistic missiles that Iran has developed.