Iran's Missile Launch a Rebuke of the United States

The meaning is largely political as Iranian President Ahmadinejad is up for re-election on June 12.

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The new missile tested by Iran on Wednesday, the Sejil-2, appeared to crash harmlessly into the empty desert of northern Iran after a successful launch. But it could yet claim one casualty: U.S. efforts to improve relations with Iran.

While most Western newspaper headlines emphasized the Sejil-2's range and ability to hit Israel, the missile represents a step along a progression rather than a leap. The Iranians have been able to strike Israel since the 1990s. But the Sejil-2 is more accurate, says Geoffrey Forden, a weapons expert and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They've obviously been on a systematic development path," he says.

The greater meaning of the launch is political. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is up for re-election on June 12, and the timing of the missile test might be both a behind-the-scenes endorsement of Ahmadinejad and a rebuke of the United States by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad is competing against three candidates. All three are relatively accommodating to the West and, in their stump speeches, paint Ahmadinejad as a radical. For his part, Ahmadinejad fires up his largely poor, rural base by portraying himself as the leader of a strong, rising Iran. Showing off a new missile feeds that image.

But the head of missile forces in Iran reports not to Ahmadinejad but to Khamenei, who had originally said he was going to stay out of the election, claiming he was "just one vote." And he initially appeared open to the Obama administration's gestures toward rapprochement.

But Khamenei's position appears to have changed, says Alex Vatanka, senior Middle East analyst at Jane's Information Group. Tehran expected to get some credit for releasing American journalist Roxana Saberi soon after she was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. Instead, this week President Obama greeted Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Iran's archenemy Israel, at the White House and alluded to a deadline for progress on the Iranian nuclear issue by the end of the year. The mention of a deadline was little noticed in Washington but raised hackles in Iran, where the government does not want to be pressed like that, Vatanka says. As a result, he says, "Khamenei is becoming more and more suspicious of American intentions toward Iran."

Earlier this month, Khamenei gave a speech calling on Iranians to elect a "people's" candidate, which was interpreted as meaning Ahmadinejad. And the missile launch also had a suspiciously "politically oriented timing" that marked it as a shot across the bow of Washington and probably boosted Ahmadinejad's standing among voters, Vatanka said.

But U.S. officials were reluctant to take the bait. There was no official condemnation of the test, and officials who were asked about it gave measured, boilerplate answers about opposition to a nuclear Iran. Of course, picking a fight with Iran now could strengthen Ahmadinejad's re-election chances—which the Obama administration no doubt hopes crash-land in the desert, just like the Sejil-2.