Iran's Revolutionary Guards plan to test-fire today a long-range missile capable of hitting Israel, Egypt and Turkey, as well as US bases in the Gulf.
The test of the Shabab 3, which Iranian officials say has a range of 2,000km, is a calculated display of defiance just three days before a rare meeting between the Islamic Republic and world powers.
The show of military muscle began yesterday with short-range missiles blasting off from desert terrain as cries of "God is Great" echoed on the ground. The manoeuvres come during Iran's Holy Defence week, ahead of Thursday's crucial meeting in Geneva where representatives of the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany want Iran to agree to open its facilities to inspections designed to establish whether the plants are for generating power or building nuclear weapons.
The stakes for the meeting have been significantly raised following last week's revelation by the US President, Barack Obama, that Iran has been building a second uranium-enrichment plant, as part of a "disturbing pattern" of evasion.
The six powers are reported to be preparing "a set of transparency demands", which would include access to scientists, documents and computers, as well as the plant itself, hidden in a mountain near the holy city of Qom. According to The New York Times, Washington is pushing for the new site to be opened to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency "within weeks".
Iran's envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog, Ali Asghar Soltanieh – who has said Iran would arrange for inspections "in the very near future" without giving any specific time frame – gave warning yesterday that "fabricated Western clamour" over the new plant would hinder progress at the meeting.
The US will attend the Geneva talks for the first time after the Obama administration reversed the stand-off policy adopted by George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said yesterday that Iran should expect to be put "to the test" and that if it failed to provide convincing evidence that its nuclear programme had purely peaceful purposes, then it could expect sanctions to be tightened.
The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, added that the widespread protests following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June had revealed deep fissures in Iranian society. "This is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could have some real impact," he said.
A change of heart in Russia is also strengthening the case for stepping up sanctions against a non-compliant Tehran. Following Washington's axing of Bush-era plan to deploy missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, has signalled that Moscow is no longer opposed to fresh sanctions. If China can be persuaded to come on board, then no member of the UN Security Council would use its veto to block a new resolution against Iran.
Faced with this prospect, Tehran seems to have reverted to a familiar tactic of stoking patriotic fervour and national pride against a common overseas enemy, with fiery rhetoric about making "enemies blind" coupled with the latest war games.
A ground-to-ground missile, dubbed Fateh (Victorious), and a naval missile, dubbed Rondar (Thunder), were among the short-range weapons tested yesterday. Medium-range Shahab 1 and 2 missiles, with ranges of 300km and 500 km, were also due to be tested last night.
"For all those who ... might harbour dreams about undertaking military invasion against our nation and country, a message of this manoeuvre is firmness, destructiveness, real and endless resistance," said Iranian General Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards' air force.