ON the eve of talks with the international community about its nuclear aspirations, and only hours after a "provocative" missile test, Iran has issued a warning to Israel that it would face destruction if it attacked the Islamist nation.
"If this (an Israeli attack) happens, which, of course, we do not foresee, its ultimate result would be to expedite the last breath of the Zionist regime," Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on state television.
His comments came after Western leaders called a second day of rocket launches by Iran a "reprehensible" distraction from talks this week that will determine whether Tehran is ready to negotiate over its nuclear program, or face biting new sanctions.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the missile tests "provocative". He added: "This is an important day and an important week for Iran." Mr Gibbs demanded unfettered access to a new nuclear facility that Iran admitted to last week.
Meanwhile, in the lead-up to tomorrow's talks in Geneva, the administration of US President Barack Obama and its Western allies were working up new ways to impose sanctions on Iran if it does not comply with demands to come clean about its nuclear program.
American officials said the US would expand its own penalties against Iranian companies and press for greater international sanctions against foreign firms, largely European, that do business in the country unless Iran can prove that its nuclear activities are not aimed at developing an atomic weapon.
Among the ideas being considered were asset freezes and travel bans.
The proposed sanctions would largely focus on investment in Iran's energy infrastructure and development, the officials said. But some economic giants are less enthusiastic about sanctions.
China and Russia are still seen as only half-hearted partners in any effort to push penalties through the UN Security Council. And France and Germany are skittish about targeting Iran's oil imports.
European officials stressed yesterday that they were likely to seriously consider new sanctions on Tehran only at year-end, citing a December deadline - replacing Mr Obama's September deadline - that has been set to see whether diplomacy with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad works.
While Iran is a major oil exporter, its lack of refining capacity requires it to import about 40 per cent of its petrol and other petroleum-based fuels. A total embargo on Iranian oil - which Israeli officials have suggested - seems unlikely. US law already forbids American firms from buying Iranian oil, but Europe, Japan and China are big customers.
The Times, AP