WASHINGTON — Iran simultaneously test-fired at least nine medium- and long-range missiles early Wednesday, a fiery warning to the United States and Israel against attacking the country over its suspected nuclear ambitions.
The desert launches of the missiles, a type of which is believed capable of hitting Israel, was the latest escalation in a duel of psychological and diplomatic warfare between Iran and major world powers.
"This exercise was needed to practice how to deal a quick retaliatory blow against hypothetical attacks by enemies," state-run TV quoted an Iranian military commander as saying.
The White House and two major presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, immediately condemned the missile launches.
Obama, who has advocated direct talks with Iran, said they highlighted the need for "direct and aggressive diplomacy," backed by tougher sanctions.
McCain questioned the usefulness of past overtures to Iran and also called for more sanctions.
Analysts said Iran's move appeared to be a direct response to a major military exercise conducted by Israel last month that some portrayed as a rehearsal for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has frequently called for Israel's disappearance.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was among those trying to tamp down war fever. "I think what we're seeing is a lot of signaling going on," he said at a Pentagon briefing.
Israel also issued a measured response to the missile test, and officials said it didn't surprise them. "Israel seeks neither conflict nor hostility with Iran," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "But it is clear that the international community cannot remain indifferent to the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program. These are matters of grave concern."
Iran has sent mixed signals in recent weeks about whether it is willing to enter negotiations with the United States and five other world powers over its nuclear program and other issues. The six powers have insisted as a precondition that it simultaneously freeze its enrichment of uranium that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Iran is weighing a U.S.-backed offer of incentives that a European Union envoy delivered last month.
Experts on Iran say there is some evidence that the influence of Iranian moderates has grown as Ahmadinejad's pugnacious rhetoric has led to a backlash abroad and at home.
Ahmadinejad's star "seems to be a little tarnished," said Kenneth Pollack, a former White House and CIA official now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
There is, he said, "a smarter, more pragmatic, more reasonable group of people asserting themselves," he said.
But Pollack cautioned that it is unclear whether Iran is ready to enter serious talks or is merely trying to appear more accommodating, while playing for time as President Bush's tenure winds down.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said: "The Iranians are not negotiating with Bush in mind," but rather to position themselves for his successor.
Parsi said Wednesday's missile tests aren't necessarily incompatible with diplomacy. If the Iranians enter negotiations on the nuclear issue, he said, "They don't want to give the impression they did so either because of Israeli threats, or because of U.N. sanctions."
Meanwhile, a top State Department official told Congress Wednesday that Iran's nuclear progress has been "modest" — an analysis that differs markedly from past comments by Cheney, Bush and other administration officials.
"While Iran seeks to create the perception of advancement in its nuclear program, real progress has been more modest," Undersecretary of State William Burns, the department's third-ranking official, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is apparent that Iran has not yet perfected (uranium) enrichment."
Asked repeatedly by lawmakers whether U.S. military action is being weighed, Burns said none is being considered at this time.
"We view the use of force as an option that's on the table, but as a last resort, and no one underestimates the potential consequences of that kind of an option," Burns said. "We do not believe that we've exhausted all the diplomatic possibilities on the Iranian nuclear issue."
Burns said there appears to be debate in Iran in recent weeks about its tactics in dealing with the nuclear issue. But he cautioned about the difficulty of reading Iran's politics.
"Humility," he said, is "a good guide to Americans trying to figure out Iranian political behavior. We've had a pretty checkered history in the past about trying to guess who's a pragmatist and who's a moderate and who's not."
Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed.