Iran tests missile, warns opposition leaders

9:17am EST

By Fredrik Dahl and Parisa Hafezi

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran’s hardline rulers sent uncompromising signals to foes at home and abroad on Wednesday, warning of possible legal action against opposition leaders and testing an upgraded missile that could reach Israel.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the launch of a Sejil 2 missile, with a range that could hit Israel, underlined the case for tougher sanctions over the major oil producer’s disputed nuclear program.

“This is a matter of serious concern to the international community and it does make the case for us moving further on sanctions,” Brown said in Copenhagen.

A senior Iranian energy official dismissed the latest effort to tighten the screw, saying a move by U.S. lawmakers to target the Middle Eastern state with fuel sanctions would not cause any problems because Tehran had many suppliers.

Iran is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter but lacks enough refining capacity to meet domestic fuel needs, forcing it to import up to 40 percent of its gasoline consumption.

This makes it potentially vulnerable to punitive measures that target the trade, although Iranian officials have repeatedly shrugged off the impact of such steps.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives backed legislation to impose sanctions on foreign companies that help to supply fuel to Iran, a measure lawmakers hope would deter Tehran from pursuing its sensitive atomic activities.

“They cannot succeed,” said Hojjatollah Ghanimifard, vice-president of investment affairs at the National Iranian Oil Company. “We have a long list of suppliers of gasoline.

Analysts say political turmoil in Iran since a disputed presidential election in June has further clouded prospects for any resolution of the nuclear dispute. Washington and its allies fear Iran is seeking to make atomic bombs. Tehran denies this.

Internal tension has increased since student backers of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi clashed in Tehran last week with security forces armed with batons and tear gas in the largest such anti-government demonstration in months.

“PLOT”

The government and official media have accused opposition supporters of insulting the memory of the Islamic Republic’s late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, by tearing up a picture of him during the December 7 demonstrations.

The opposition has denied involvement in the reported incident, suggesting the authorities were planning to use it as a pretext for a renewed crackdown on dissent.

Adding to pressure on the reform movement, Iran’s judiciary said it had evidence that opposition leaders had fomented trouble after the presidential poll, which Mousavi says was rigged in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“We have enough proof about the leaders of this plot against the system,” judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani said, according to the official IRNA news agency. “It is the judiciary’s duty to consider such evidences and cases.”

Hardliners have called in the past for Mousavi to be arrested for fuelling widespread unrest after the election, a move that could trigger new opposition demonstrations.

Officially, Ahmadinejad was returned to power by a wide margin, but his reformist opponents cried foul and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the biggest anti-government protests in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic.

The authorities reject opposition charges of poll fraud and have portrayed huge anti-government protests as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical leadership.

Thousands of Mousavi supporters were detained after the vote, including senior reformers. Most have been freed but over 80 people have received jail terms of up to 15 years and five have been sentenced to death over the post-vote unrest.

“BAD SIGNAL”

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday’s Iranian missile launch was “very worrying” and sent “a very bad signal to the international community.”

Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the test of the Sejil 2, which official media said was more accurate than an earlier version, was aimed at boosting deterrent capabilities.

Earlier this year, Iran said the Sejil 2 had a range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles), potentially putting Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf within reach.

Neither Israel nor the United States has ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute. Iran has vowed to retaliate for any attack.

State television showed a missile launched from desert-like terrain soaring into the sky with a long vapor trail.

Earlier this week, diplomats said intelligence suggested that Iran worked on testing a key atomic bomb component as recently as 2007, a finding which if proven would clash with Tehran’s assertion that its nuclear work is for civilian use.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry rejected the claim as “baseless.”

The United States and five other major powers said on Tuesday that a planned meeting on Iran’s nuclear program will not take place this year because of scheduling conflicts, although consultations will continue by telephone.

In October, negotiators offered a deal under which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment. However, Tehran has backed away from it, raising the prospect of additional sanctions.

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