Saber-Rattling from Iran and Russia

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Three of nine long- and medium-range missiles are fired during a test in Iran on July 9

The missile-bound game of nuclear tic-tac-toe continued across the Middle East and Europe Wednesday as Russia made a provocative response to an expansion of the U.S. missile shield in Europe, and Iran followed with a provocation of its own. After the U.S. and Czech Republic signed an agreement calling for the basing of a U.S. radar south of Prague, Moscow responded with a threat of unspecified "military" action if the system is ever deployed. Then, less than 24 hours later, apparently responding to increasing chatter from the U.S. and Israel about attacking Tehran's nuclear production sites, Iran test-fired a barrage of missiles at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, a vital waterway through which about 40% of the world's oil — much of it bound for the U.S. and the West — passes.

Iran's nine-missile test shows "our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language," Gen. Hossein Salami of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said in a broadcast over Iranian state television. Iran has threatened to halt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. or Israel attacks its nuclear-development sites. The test firings reportedly included Iran's newest missile, the intermediate range Shahab 3, which can reach Israel, Turkey and U.S. military deployments in the region. "Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch," Salami told the official IRNA news agency Wednesday. While it can carry a one-ton conventional warhead, the Shahab 3 is not very accurate, U.S. officials say. Marrying a nuclear warhead to it — assuming Iran is able to build one — is also a daunting technical challenge.

The Iranians conduct such tests several times a year. While such testing is provocative, Iran has defensive motives for it as well: it was 20 years ago this month that the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes killed 290 people aboard an Iranian airliner as it flew across the Persian Gulf after the ship erroneously identified the airliner as an Iranian F-14 intent on attacking the vessel.

The Persian barrage came shortly after the Russians issued their own threatening response to a pact signed Tuesday between Washington and the Czech Republic to move into that country an aging missile defense radar system currently based in the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. "We will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods" if the shield is ever deployed, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The tracking radar slated to move to the Czech Republic would be linked to 10 interceptor missiles Washington hopes to base in Poland. Russia has threatened to re-aim its missiles at those sites if the system is built.

Defense Department officials expressed exasperation at the latest Russian denunciation of the missile shield that U.S. officials maintain is designed only to protect parts of Europe as well as the United States. "No one's name [in the Russian government] is attached to it," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told TIME shortly after the Russians released their saber-rattling statement. "It's being reported as a foreign ministry statement — and it's got strange wording in it like 'We would be forced to react with military resources' or 'technical means' — what does that mean?"

Moscow lobbed the verbal missile toward Washington after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg, signed an agreement in Prague for the radar's move, which the U.S. says is designed to warn of missiles headed toward Europe from Iran. "We face with the Iranians, and so do our allies and friends, a growing missile threat that is growing ever longer and ever deeper and where the Iranian appetite for nuclear technology to this point is still unchecked," Rice said after inking the pact. "It's hard for me to believe that an American President is not going to want to have the capability to defend our territory [and] the territory of our allies."

Pentagon officials have wooed the Russians with enticements to get them to participate in the shield, saying that Tehran threatens Moscow as well as other Eurasian nations. But Moscow has steadfastly declined to cooperate. Ever since the U.S. announced several years ago that it planned to spread its missile-defense system to Europe, Moscow has seen it as a ploy designed to emasculate its last remaining claim to superpower status: its nuclear might. In the two decades since the Soviet Union's demise, its slide into international irrelevancy has been slowed only by its nuclear arsenal and the recent rise in oil prices. While superpower tensions have eased considerably since the Cold War, both sides continue to keep hundreds of long-range missiles set on hair-trigger alert.

"This system is not designed to counter a Russian threat — this system is designed to counter what is an emerging threat from the Middle East," Whitman says. "We have been very transparent with respect to our intent and purpose — we have offered the Russians a very attractive, robust collaboration opportunity and we have also offered what is unprecedented transparency."

While President Bush is eager to cement the European element of the missile-defense shield before he leaves office, actually building and deploying it would fall to his successor. Presumptive Republican nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain backs the proposal, while Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been less supportive. What really matters isn't what either does — or what the Russians say — but what the Iranians do. The closer Tehran is believed to having a nuclear weapon, Pentagon officials say, the more necessary such a Euroshield becomes. Wednesday's tests, Rice said while traveling in Bulgaria, are "evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one." — With reporting by Eben Harrell/London