Iran prepares public for clash with U.S.

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran conducted missile tests Monday as its leadership stepped up warnings of a possible military confrontation with the United States.

In another show of defiance, Tehran said Monday it had barred 38 United Nations nuclear inspectors from entering the country, apparently in retaliation for a U.N. Security Council resolution last month imposing limited sanctions on Iran.

The drum-beating suggested Iran does not intend to back down in its standoff with the West. It could also aim to rally the public behind the government and silence increasingly bold criticism at home of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antagonism toward the United States.

Iran’s leaders have touted the possibility of a U.S. attack since President Bush announced on Jan. 9 the deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region, a move U.S. officials have said is a show of strength directed at Iran.

Last month, the Security Council imposed limited trade sanctions on Iran over its refusal to cease uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear energy or bombs.

The Iranian military on Monday began five days of maneuvers near the northern city of Garmsar, about 60 miles southeast of Tehran, state television reported. The military tested its Zalzal-1 and Fajr-5 missiles, the report said.

The Zalzal-1, able to carry a 1,200-pound payload, has a range of 200 miles. That would put Iraq, U.S. bases in the Gulf, and eastern Saudi Arabia in its range. The Fajr-5, with a 1,800-pound payload, has a range of 35 miles.

Neither could reach Israel, but Iran has other missiles that can. It was not known whether the missiles tested are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The Iranian show of strength came as the American aircraft carrier USS Stennis was heading toward the Gulf, joining the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in a beefed-up American military presence. The Stennis is expected to arrive in late February.

The U.S. is also deploying Patriot missiles and nuclear submarines to the Persian Gulf and F-16 fighter planes to the Incirlik base in neighboring Turkey.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the buildup aimed to impress on Iran that the four-year war in Iraq has not made America vulnerable.

Washington and its allies accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies the allegation, insisting its nuclear activities are aimed only at producing energy. The U.S. also accuses Iran of backing militants fueling Iraq’s violence.

The U.S. buildup has sparked loud warnings from Iranian officials that the United States will attack.

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.

A military official told the Associated Press Iranian forces have been put on high alert. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the media.

Over the past few days, hardline newspapers have threatened suicide attacks against American targets and claimed missiles fired from Iran would turn Israel into “a scorching hell” if the U.S. takes military action.

One of the papers that carried the threats on Monday is close to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – suggesting the highest levels are involved in ringing the alarm over the American deployment.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack rebuked Iran on Monday for barring the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, saying it was “another example of the Iranians trying to dictate the terms to the international community – in this case, the IAEA.”

The rejected officials are on a list of potential inspectors drawn up by the IAEA to visit and monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities. Countries submitting their nuclear programs to IAEA purview have the right to ask that certain experts be taken off rosters of inspecting teams.

“The act of rejecting some inspectors is legal and in accordance with the agency’s regulations,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He said others on the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s list remain eligible, but did not explain how Iran decided which inspectors to bar.

Analysts said the decision appeared to be a measured retaliation for the U.N. sanctions.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said designating inspectors was a confidential matter between the IAEA and the country concerned. But she added that the agency had enough investigators lined up to conduct inspections in Iran.

“In this case, we are discussing with Iran its request for withdrawing the designation of certain safeguards inspectors,” she said.

It was not the first time Iran had asked the IAEA to bar certain inspectors from visiting the country.

Tehran last spring asked the agency to remove the head of the inspection team probing the country’s nuclear program. More recently, Tehran delayed entry visas for some inspectors late last year, including Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s deputy director general in charge of the Iran nuclear dossier.

Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran is “ready for anything” in its confrontation with the United States. At the same time that he soundly rejected criticism at home over his policies.

Iranian reformers and conservatives, who were once allies of Ahmadinejad, now accuse him of hurting Iran with his virulent anti-U.S. rhetoric, while failing to repair Iran’s weakening economy. Rising prices have fueled anger against the president.

AP-ES-01-22-07 1803EST

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