Iran said on Tuesday that the strengthening of U.S. missile defence systems in Gulf Arab countries is aimed at sowing regional divisions and that Tehran’s neighbours should not be drawn into believing the country poses a threat.
U.S. military officials said over the weekend that the systems - involving upgraded Patriot missiles on land and more U.S. Navy ships capable of destroying missiles in flight - is intended to counter a potential Iranian missile strike.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met on Tuesday with the crown prince of Qatar, one of four Arab nations where the U.S. has based Patriot missile systems, and told him the West was seeking to divide them.
“Westerners do not want friendly relations between countries in the region. Their life is dependent on rifts and insecurity,” the president told the visiting crown prince, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
“The enemies intend to extend the fire of war in the entire region to solve their own political and economic problems,” state TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying in their meeting.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran and Qatar should build closer links and develop a common understanding of what he called plots by enemies.
The predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East - and Gulf nations in particular - have been wary of the growing influence of Shiite Iran, especially because of international suspicions that its nuclear program has a military dimension.
Iran insists its nuclear work only has peaceful aims like energy production, but the U.S. and its allies in Europe are considering new sanctions to pressure Iran to make concessions meant to ease their concerns.
Iran’s missile programme has also generated worries. Iran has missiles with ranges of more than 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) that are capable of hitting Israel and U.S. bases in the region, as well as parts of southeastern and eastern Europe.
The U.S. Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft have now been upgraded to hit missiles in flight.
In a January speech, David Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command chief who is responsible for military operations across the Middle East, said the U.S. now has eight Patriot missile batteries stationed in the Gulf region - two each in four countries. He did not name the countries.
A military official said over the weekend, however, that the countries are Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because some aspects of the defensive strategy are classified.
In another speech, Gen. Petraeus said Aegis ballistic missile cruisers are now in the Gulf at all times.
Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, warned nations in the region not to be “deceived by U.S. anti-Iran policies” and talk of a growing Iranian threat.
“When in the past 31 years has Iran attacked any of its neighbouring states or any other countries in the region?” Mr. Larijani said, referring to the length of time that the country’s Islamic leadership has been in power.
Emphasizing the point, he noted that the 1980-88 war with Iraq was in defence against an attack launched by Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Larijani said the strengthening of the missile defence system would only bring more trouble for U.S. forces.
“Regional countries should know that this puppet show by the U.S., while claiming to create security in the region, is nothing except a new political ploy to increase the (American) military presence at the expense of others,” Mr. Larijani said in a parliament session.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters that Iran believes the U.S. missile systems to be “ineffective,” though he did not elaborate.
At his weekly news conference, Mr. Mehmanparast also denied claims by Thailand that a planeload of North Korean weapons seized there in December was headed to Iran.
“There is no link between the aircraft and our country,” Mr. Mehmanparast said.
He said Iran had no need to import such arms due to its own weapons production, which includes rockets, tanks, jet fighters, light submarines and missiles.
Thailand said on Monday that the aircraft, which was seized on a refuelling stop, was heading to Iran, though it did not know the ultimate destination of the 35 tons of weaponry.
The shipment, which violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea, reportedly included light battlefield arms such as grenades - hardly the ones Iran’s sophisticated military would need.
From the start there has been speculation that the weapons were to be shipped on to some of the radical Middle Eastern groups supported by Tehran.
The plane’s chief pilot, among five crewmen detained in Thailand, maintains that the aircraft was headed for Kiev, Ukraine.