TEHRAN, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- Iran claimed to have successfully tested an advanced variant of its Sajjil-2 ballistic missile Wednesday, thumbing its nose at possible air and missile strikes by the United States and Israel to cripple its nuclear ambitions.
But, as tensions in the Gulf swell once more, the Americans say they will conduct a test of their own in January -- countering a simulated Iranian missile attack.
That will be carried out by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency in the Pacific, where most of the agency's facilities are located.
The Sajjil test, if independently confirmed, would underline an accelerated missile development program by Tehran that has been given some urgency by recent political developments, most notably the apparent breakdown in U.S. efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran on its controversial nuclear program.
The two-stage Sajjil-2 is powered by solid fuel, which gives it greater range and accuracy than the liquid-fueled Shehab-3 weapons that currently constitute Iran's strategic missile force.
The Sajjil-1 was first test-fired on Nov. 12, 2008, and bore a striking resemblance to another missile, the Ashura, flight-tested a year earlier.
The Sajjil-2, reportedly equipped with a more advanced guidance system, underwent its first flight test in May. Another test was conducted in September.
Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who Argentina has accused of masterminding the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, announced that the test was designed to bolster Iran's deterrent capabilities.
He gave no details, such as its range, but said it is faster and more accurate than the Shehab and has "radar-evading capability."
Al Alam, Iran's Arabic-language satellite television, said the Sajjil-2 has a longer range than the Shehab-3. The Iranians say that has a range of up to 1,250 miles, sufficient to reach Israel.
Iranian TV showed a missile launched in desert terrain, probably the firing range in the Great Salt Desert south of Tehran. But there was no immediate independent verification that there had actually been a test launch or that it involved a new version of the Sajjil-2.
Most Western missile experts say Iran has accelerated its ballistic missile program over the last couple of years as relations with the United States and Israel became more fraught.
The Iranians boast that their missile forces can now target Israel's nuclear facilities, its strategic bases and main cities, and would be unleashed if the Islamic Republic came under attack.
One of the consequences of the Iranians' shift to solid fuel from the more cumbersome liquid fuel is that ballistic missiles can be maintained at instant readiness fully fueled.
Those using liquid propellant have to be fueled before they can be launched, a delicate process that can take hours. That makes it easier for spy satellites to detect them and for pre-emptive strikes to be launched to knock them out.
The Iranians' use of a two-stage booster rocket, known as the Safir-2, a variant of the Shehab-3, to launch their first satellite into Earth orbit in February marked a major technological breakthrough in Tehran's drive to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It was clear that the Iranians had overcome the complex problem of separating the second stage carrying the satellite in flight from the rocket booster. That's a key element in producing an ICBM.
According to one U.S. analyst at the time the missile "carrying the satellite can be used to carry nuclear warheads to Israel -- and to Europe."
"The world has not found a way to stop or slow down Iran's nuclear weapons program. This means an Israeli attack on Iran is becoming more likely. The countdown toward an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program has begun."
That may be overstating the case, but the rapid acceleration of Iran's missile development has caused unease in Israel, which views the nuclear program as an existential threat.
Initially at least, many in the West were dismissive of the February satellite launch.
But Uzi Rubin, former director of Israel's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, cautioned: "As with the 1957 launch of the Russian Sputnik, the world should not be alarmed by the satellite but by the missile carrying it.
"The Iranians, long students of North Korean missile technology, have now surpassed their tutors: the Safir-2 is the basis for a future Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile."