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. Iran adds to international concerns with missile, nuclear moves
TEHRAN (AFP) Oct 05, 2004
Iran gave cause for fresh international alarm Tuesday, as a top regime official announced the Islamic republic had boosted the range of its ballistic missiles and hardline MPs backed a move to defy the UN's nuclear watchdog.

"Today, we have the power to send our missiles up to 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles)," former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was quoted as saying by the official news agency IRNA.

He further cautioned that "experts know that once a country has made such a step, all further steps are accessible", while boasting that "if we had not limited our progress, we would have been even more advanced."

On August 11, Iran tested an upgraded version of its Shahab-3 missile, which experts believe is based on a North Korean design.

Previous figures had put the missile's range at between 1,300 and 1,700 kilometres, already bringing arch-enemy Israel and US bases in the region well within range.

Last month Iran showed off its array of ballistic missiles draped in banners vowing to "crush America" and "wipe Israel off the map".

While the country has announced it has upgraded the Shahab-3, it has denied it is working on a Shahab-4 -- a device that would involve a two-stage propulsion system and possibly bring many European capitals within range.

Steady progress made by Iran's ballistic missile programme is a major cause of concern for Israel as well as European countries and the United States, which are already alarmed over the country's suspect nuclear activities.

And the duration of Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was also thrown into question on Tuesday.

Top deputies in the hardline-controlled parliament gave preliminary approval of a bill aimed at forcing Iran's reformist government to resume uranium enrichment.

Depending on the level of purification, enriched uranium can be used as either as fuel for a civilian reactor or as the explosive core of a nuclear bomb.

Under IAEA pressure, Iran suspended enrichment in October last year.

According to IRNA, the move surmounted its first legislative hurdle after winning the backing of parliament's foreign affairs and national security committee.

If eventually passed by a Majlis vote and rubber-stamped by legislative watchdogs, the government would be forced to resume enrichment -- a step almost certain to see Iran referred to the UN Security Council.

But many analysts say parliament's move is more a case of posturing and a means of raising the stakes in the standoff with the IAEA. Perhaps tellingly, the bill was not prioritised for immediate debate in the assembly.

The enrichment suspension was part of an October 2003 deal with the three main European powers -- Britain, France and Germany. But the accord has since come under pressure, with Iran pressing on with work on other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Iran says it only wants to generate electricity, and emphasises that enrichment is permitted under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- the treaty overseen by the IAEA -- if for peaceful purposes.

But the IAEA's board on September 18 passed another resolution calling on Iran to widen the suspension to include all uranium enrichment-related activities -- such as making centrifuges, converting yellowcake into UF6 feed gas, and constructing a heavy water reactor.

Iran, facing a November 25 deadline, has so far rejected the demands but has urged more negotiations. Top officials have also warned that if referred to the Security Council, Iran would halt its cooperation with IAEA inspectors.

Israel charges that the clerical regime could have a nuclear warhead by 2007 has led to speculation that the Jewish state -- currently believed to be the only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East -- may launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

But Rafsanjani, who now heads the Expediency Council, Iran's top political arbitration body, said not even the Americans would dare attack.

"The United States and the Zionist regime are our enemies, but given their past experience, the United States knows that they should not engage themselves in a dangerous conflict with us," he said.

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