Q&A: What Iran’s missile test means for U.S.

Iran test-fired a new missile Wednesday with a range capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.

The missile test came at a time when President Obama is trying to reach out to the Iranian regime and stop it from building a nuclear weapon. USA TODAY’s international affairs correspondent Ken Dilanian answers questions about the launch and what it means for the U.S.

Q. How much more of a threat does Iran now pose to the United States and its allies in the Middle East?

A: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the missile has a range of at least 1,200 miles, which would include Israel and Iraq— and the 134,000 U.S. troops stationed there. The radius also includes U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, all of them Sunni Arab-dominated countries that are rivals of Shiite Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of a new regional “arms race.”

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said the missile had “great destructive power” and that mass production of the missile had started.

Q. What message was Iran trying to send with the missile launch?

A: Iranian PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad, who faces a potentially tough re-election battle next month, has cast the country’s military and nuclear program as proof that Iran is one of the world’s great powers.

Ken Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said Ahmadinejad may perceive the launch as a show of strength at a time when the U.S. and other Western countries are pressuring him on the nuclear issue. However, Pollack said “this is about the worst thing they could have done” since it will empower those who argue, as Israel’s government does, that Iran is dangerous.

Q. How close is Iran to building a nuclear weapon?

A: Assessments vary. This week, a report by the EastWest Institute, a think tank, said that Iran could produce a simple nuclear device within one to three years, and could develop a nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles in six to eight years.

CIA Director Leon Panetta recently reiterated the view in a 2007 U.S. intelligence report that Iran had halted its active nuclear weapons program in 2003, but warned it could reactivate the program.

Israel goes further, arguing that Iran already has “crossed the technological threshold” to build a bomb. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Q: How does the Obama administration plan to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

A: Obama said this week he wants to try diplomacy until the end of this year. He’s trying to reach out in a variety of ways, including having U.S. diplomats talk to Iranian diplomats at international conferences, even though there are no formal diplomatic ties.

If talks fail, Obama has not ruled out military action.

Many observers, including Pollack, believe Israel would consider a military strike on Iranian nuclear targets if talks don’t bear fruit by the end of the year.