TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Determined not to budge under pressure, Iran announced new tests of short-range missiles Sunday, and hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed criticism that the country’s economy has been hurt by U.N. sanctions imposed for its suspect nuclear program.
The missile tests come as the U.S. Navy is sending a second aircraft carrier to the volatile Persian Gulf. U.S. officials said the USS John C. Stennis, which arrives in Mideast waters in a matter of weeks, is meant as a warning to Iran.
The deployment appeared to alarm some in Iran’s hardline leadership, including a member of a powerful cleric-run body who warned last week that Washington plans to attack, possibly by striking Iranian nuclear facilities. U.S. officials have long refused to rule out any options in the faceoff with Tehran, but say military action would be a last resort.
Stressing Iran’s preparedness, state television said the Revolutionary Guards planned to begin three days of testing the short-range Zalzal and Fajr-5 missiles Sunday. It could not be confirmed if the exercise had begun near Garmsar city, about 60 miles southeast of Tehran.
“The maneuver is aimed at evaluating defensive and fighting capabilities of the missiles,” the report quoted an unidentified Guards commander as saying.
Last year, Iran held three large-scale military exercises to test what it called an “ultra-horizon” missile and the Fajr-3, a rocket that it claims can evade radar and use multiple warheads to hit several targets simultaneously.
Though U.S. officials suggest Iran exaggerates its military capabilities, Washington is very concerned about Iranian progress in developing missiles. Some of its missiles are capable of hitting U.S.-allied Arab nations and Israel, which Ahmadinejad has called to be wiped off the map.
The United States, which led military maneuvers of its own in the Persian Gulf in October, also accuses Iran of supporting militants in Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed and is trying to rally Arab allies to isolate the Tehran regime.
Iran’s new maneuvers are the first since the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions last month over Ahmadinejad’s defiance of its demand that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment. The sanctions ban selling materials and technology that could be used in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
The United States and its allies accuse Iran of secretly developing atomic weapons in violation of its treaty commitments. Tehran has repeatedly denied that, saying its program is solely for the peaceful purpose of developing nuclear technology to generate electricity.
A top American diplomat urged Iran on Sunday to resume negotiations on curbing its nuclear program, warning of stepped-up international pressure if diplomacy fails.
Speaking in Israel, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the limited U.N. sanctions imposed were just the beginning of the global effort to punish the Tehran regime. “Iran is going to have to suffer the consequences of being an international pariah,” he said.
Ahmadinejad has remained defiant, saying Iran has the right to conduct uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors but also provide material fuel for atomic bombs.
But the president’s tough talk has come under criticism from both ends of Iran’s political spectrum. Some reformists and conservatives have accused Ahmadinejad of focusing too much on fiery anti-Western rhetoric and not enough on domestic issues, including the economy.
Ahmadinejad strongly defended his economic policies Sunday, and said again that sanctions would not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program.
“The (Security Council) resolution was delivered dead. Ten more similar resolutions will not affect our economy and our policy,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV as he delivered the budget for the new year.
“Falsely, they want to imply that we have had costs in this regard,” the president said, apparently referring to recent news stories in the West that said prices for food and other basic goods have risen in Iran since the sanctions were imposed in late December.
Iranians have been hit hard by inflation, which the government says is running at 11 percent a year and independent Iranian economists estimate as high as 30 percent. Unemployment also is a problem, with the government saying the jobless rate is 10 percent while experts put it at 30 percent.
Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment, but he has faced increasingly fierce criticism in recent weeks for his failure to meet those promises.
In presenting his budget for the fiscal year that begins March 21, he defended his domestic and economic policies. “The government has completely controlled the prices of some food stuffs, such as bread, gas, water and electricity,” he said.
About 150 Iranian lawmakers have signed a letter calling on Ahmadinejad’s government to reconsider its draft budget for next year, arguing it overestimates oil revenues in a falling world market. Roughly 80 percent of Iran’s revenues come from oil exports.
Ahmadinejad said Sunday the budget took account of a possible further drop in oil prices, but he gave no specifics.
“We assume enemies want to damage us by decreasing the price of oil,” he said. “So we have reduced dependency on oil revenue.”
Also on Sunday, Iran’s top national security official held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, stressing that his country was working with others to establish security and stability in the region.
Ali Larijani also handed Assad a message from Ahmadinejad that dealt with “the situation in the region and issues of mutual interest,” Syria’s official news agency SANA reported. It did not provide more details about the message.