Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that his country "would consider all options" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And earlier today, the Israeli Defense Forces offered a glimpse at one of those options, test-firing an intermediate range ballistic missile that is capable of reaching targets throughout the Middle East.
Official Israeli comments on the test were predictably cryptic. But most analysts believe the missile was a Jericho III, which entered service in 2005. As Reuters reports:
Amateur photographs posted on Israeli news Web sites showed a white plume in the sky above central Israel -- suggesting a test of a large missile rather than of smaller, anti-missile defensive rockets that Israel is also believed to be developing.
Israel Radio, the public broadcaster, said the missile was capable of carrying an "unconventional payload" -- an apparent reference to the nuclear warheads Israel is assumed to possess, though whose existence it has never publicly confirmed.
In its brief statement, the Israeli Defence Ministry said only: "A successful missile launch was carried out within the framework of examining rocket propulsion."
Israel Radio, which like all media in Israel operates under military censorship, quoted foreign reports as saying Israel is developing a long-range missile known as Jericho III.
With an estimated range of 4,800 km, the Jericho III could deliver a nuclear weapon against any location in Iran, although it lacks the accuracy for precision strikes on small, hardened underground targets.
Not that it really matters. Israel understands that Iran's growing force of medium and intermediate range missiles is aimed at area targets and population centers. With the Jericho II (which has a range of 1500 km) and the newer Jericho III, Israel has a force that can eradicate most of the major cities in Iran and kill millions of people.
It's the kind of scenario envisioned in a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) assessment on a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran. According to the CSIS, Israel not only enjoys numerical superiority over Iran, its nuclear weapons have a higher yield, which would generate substantially higher casualties on the Iranian side.
In reaction to the missile test, Iran's nut-job president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reacted with his usual bluster. However, the Jericho III launch will be taken far more seriously in Tehran's MOD, which understands that it has no viable defense against the Israeli system. And that's another reason that Iran is looking for an advanced air defense system, like the Russian-built SA-20. While the SA-20 has impressive capabilities against ballistic missiles, the high terminal velocity of a Jericho III reentry vehicle, coupled with possible on-board decoys, would present a severe challenge to the Russian system.