Iran announced Tuesday it had successfully tested a new solid fuel motor for its arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles, a technological breakthrough that sparked fresh alarm in Israel.
"The test was a success," Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani said on state television.
"When you fill a missile with liquid fuel, you have to use it quickly. With solid fuel, a missile can be stored for years. And in addition, it makes the missile more accurate and cheaper too."
A defence ministry statement said the new technology could be built into Iran's Shahab-3 missiles - which the Islamic says already has a range of at least 2,000 kilometres (1,280 miles).
The country has recently upgraded the Shahab-3 ballistic missile, a single-stage device believed to be based on a North Korean design. Its range means that arch-enemy Israel and US bases in the region are well within range.
But up to now it has been based on liquid-fuel technology.
Military experts contacted by AFP said the test, if indeed successful, would signify an important breakthrough for the Islamic republic's missile programme.
Firstly, in order to develop a missile with a range greater than 2,000 kilometres - in effect a two-stage rocket - a country needs to master the more complex solid fuel technology.
"The maximum range of a single stage missile is around 2,000 kilometers. In order to send a missile further, you need a twin stage design that separates in mid-flight," said one analyst.
"This separation is very complex, and in order to maintain the accuracy of the missile, it needs to be using solid fuel.
"In very simplistic terms, think of a liquid fuel missile as a bottle of mineral water - the liquid is sloshing around and makes the bottle unstable," he said.
"And even if the missile is only a single stage design, solid fuel makes it more accurate," he added.
Iran has, however, denied developing a missile with a reach beyond the Middle East region.
While Shamkhani did speak of a "two motor missile", a defence ministry official said that he was only referring to separate launch and flight thrusters of the single-stage Shahab-3.
A second advantage of solid fuel missiles of all ranges is that they are more mobile and can be deployed far more quickly than liquid fuel devices, which need to be filled up in situ before their launch.
In practice, that means the Shahab-3 missiles can now spread across the country and stored far from any refueling facilities in preparation for immediate deployment.
However one diplomat cautioned that a successful missile engine test, while very important, "is not the same thing as an actual missile test".
"It's one thing testing it in a laboratory, and another thing altogether putting it into a missile and firing it through the sky," said the diplomat, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
"But what this does tell us is that when it comes to ballistic missiles, Iran is very ambitious."
Tehran's rapid progress on its ballistic missile programme is a major cause for concern among the international community, particularly Israel, which is already alarmed over Iran's nuclear activities.
Britain, France and Germany are currently engaged in a tough diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear issue without recourse to the UN Security Council and possible sanctions.
In a quick reaction to the latest Iranian test, Israel warned the "free world to beware of Iran's plans".
"We are closely monitoring these worrying projects being plotted in Iran," said one senior Israeli official contacted by AFP.
"Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and is developing its vectors to this end. Its ballistic missiles do not only threaten Israel: they can also be turned on Europe," he added.
Iran insists it is not seeking to develop missiles with a longer range than the Shahab-3, and has denied allegations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The country says its missiles will only be tipped with conventional warheads.
But many are not convinced: as one Western diplomat in Iran has remarked, "why develop a Rolls-Royce to only deliver a pizza?"
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Iran Says Shahab-3 Missile Entirely Iranian, Production Ongoing
Tehran (AFP) May 05, 2005
Iran said Thursday its Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles was entirely comprised of locally-made parts and that production was continuing.
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