WASHINGTON — The missile test-fired by Iran is the longest-range solid-propellent missile it has launched yet, a U.S. government official said Wednesday, raising concerns about whether the sophistication of Tehran's missile program is increasing. The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss technical details of Iran's missile program, said Tehran has demonstrated shorter-range solid-propellent missiles in the past.
Solid-propellent rockets are a concern because they can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos, the official said. Liquid-propellent rockets have to be fueled and fired quickly, which makes preparations for launches easier to monitor and would allow a preemptive strike if necessary.
But according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who Wednesday provided the first official U.S. confirmation of the Iranian launch, the Iranian missile had a range of 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers.
That translates to 1,200 to 1,500 miles, putting Israel, U.S. bases in the Mideast, and parts of Eastern Europe within striking distance.
"The information that I have read indicates that it was a successful flight test," Gates told the House Appropriations Committee nearly eight hours after the test was announced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Gates added that "because of some of the problems they've had with their engines we think at least at this stage of the testing we think it's probably closer to the lower end of that range. Whether it hit the target that it was intended for, I have not seen any information on that."
U.S. officials said that government analysts and other specialists were still assessing information from the launch.
"Obviously, that's concerning," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said of the launch.
Iran's launch comes less than a month before Iran's presidential election and just two days after President Barack Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Tehran if it did not respond positively to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. Obama said earlier this week that Tehran had until the end of the year to show it wanted to engage with Washington.
But both U.S. government officials and independent American missile experts said Wednesday that the Iranian missile itself did not appear to be a new model.
Charles Vick, a senior technical analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, analyzed photos and videotape of the launch released by Iran.
"I'm not all that impressed," Vick said. "It's just another test that confirms they've got the system that was operational last summer."
"Obviously, we've seen reports," Gibbs said. "You all know the concerns that the president has about Iran's missile development programs .... and the strong belief that the pursuit of those programs does not strengthen the security of Iran but instead make them less safe."
"Obviously, the president has been long concerned about it," he said. Gibbs noted that Obama and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "both agreed on Monday that engaging the people and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, something that hasn't been tried for the past many years, is something that makes sense."
Some dozen hours after the test was reportedly conducted, numerous U.S. defense and intelligence officials declined to even acknowledge the Iranian launch had occurred.
Some referred calls to the White House and State Department, a sign of how politically sensitive the development is to the Obama administration and its continuing efforts to deal with Iran's reported efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing Wednesday morning before the Senate Appropriations Committee, said nothing directly about the Iranian launch when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raised the issue during questioning.
But Clinton did discuss the subject generally, saying that a nuclear-armed Iran would "spark an arms race" in the Middle East.
She referred to a host of threats to the United States that she said are "daunting." And Clinton reiterated that the administration opposes Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability and that it is relying for now on diplomatic pressure to stop it.
She described a nuclear capability as an "extraordinary threat." And Clinton said that the U.S. goal is "to persuade the Iranian regime that they will actually be less secure if they proceed with their nuclear weapons program."
In a breakfast meeting with reporters, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy spoke in general terms about Iran's missile program, saying that the Iranian efforts pose "a security threat to the region that we will have to, probably, to deal with it."
Flournoy said the administration is trying to present Iran with "a very fundamental choice between staying on the current path they are on, which I think is only going to hamper their security in the long term ... versus taking another path where if they were to reject support for terrorism and extremism, reject nuclear weapons, they could actually be on a path that would do a lot more for their ultimate security."
Trita Parsi, President and Founder of the National Iranian American Council, said Wednesday that the launch only complicates Obama's efforts to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program and bring stability to the Mideast.
"With Israel pressing for short deadlines for diplomacy followed by sanctions and military action, with Iran testing additional missiles and continuing its tough talk, the Obama administration's best friend in this process will be patience and endurance," Parsi said.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Lara Jakes and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.