JIM LEHRER: Iran fired a ballistic missile today in a test that was heard in the Middle East, Washington, and around the world.
Margaret Warner has our lead story report.
MARGARET WARNER: News of the launch was met with wild cheers, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed a rally in the city of Semnan.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): The Sajjil missile, which has very advanced technology, was launched from Semnan, and it landed precisely on the target.
MARGARET WARNER: Ahmadinejad’s speech, broadcast live on Iranian television, portrayed the test-firing as an act of defiance against international attempts to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
“In the nuclear case, we send them a message,” he said. “Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is running the show. Every center of power which wants to shoot a bullet before it can put its finger on the trigger, we will cut its hands and send it to Hell.”
State television also broadcast what it said was today’s launch. The Sajjil-2 missile was described as a solid-fuel, medium-range, surface-to-surface weapon, with greater accuracy and better navigation than an earlier version.
U.S. Defense Secretary Gates said the missile has a range of 1,200 to 1,500 miles. That would place Israel, parts of Eastern Europe, and some U.S. military bases within striking distance.
The missile test came just two days after President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met and discussed how to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
And for the first time, Mr. Obama publicly set an end-of-year timeline for the negotiations he’s offered Tehran to show signs of bearing fruit.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re not going to have talks forever.
Analyzing the political message
MARGARET WARNER: Today, the Israeli government said the missile launch appeared to be Iran's response.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said, "Actions such as ballistic missile launches only serve to isolate Iran and call into question Iran's intentions, particularly for its nuclear program."
When asked about today's launch at a Senate hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a nuclear-armed Iran would be an "extraordinary threat."
HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of State: A nuclear-armed Iran with a deliverable weapons system is going to spark an arms race in the Middle East and the greater region.
MARGARET WARNER: Today's launch comes just three weeks before Ahmadinejad faces the voters in a bid to be re-elected president.
Earlier this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to vote for a candidate who would stand up to the West.
The timing of today's launch has generated some skepticism about whether it marks an important step in Iran's weapons development, but there's little debate that the test-firing was intended to send a strong political message at home and abroad.
DAVID ALBRIGHT, Institute for Science and International Security: It certainly has an impact on Iran's missile capabilities, where it appears to have successfully tested a solid-fuel rocket, which is certainly an advancement for the Iranians.
MARGARET WARNER: David Albright is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: But in terms of nuclear weapons, Iran still have several years to go before it could put a nuclear warhead on any ballistic missile. And so whether it's solid-fuel, liquid-fuel, you know, the range is 1,000 miles, 2,000 miles, doesn't actually have much bearing.
MARGARET WARNER: Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, believes the launch was above all designed for domestic consumption.
KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think it was a clear goal of President Ahmadinejad to divert people's attention away from the conversations about the economy ahead of the June 12th elections and to focus on other matters and to project himself as a strong leader.
MARGARET WARNER: But Albright says it nonetheless sent a threatening signal to the international community.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Today's launch has an unstated message that Iran is trying to build up its deterrent capability and that, if you're going to attack Iran, just know that these missiles are increasingly going to be a part of our retaliatory force and, in several years, they may be carrying nuclear weapons.
MARGARET WARNER: And Iran's leadership is also trying to chill any attempt to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has always believed that, whenever you're facing pressure or you're facing threats, never kowtow or never compromise as a result of that pressure because it will invite even more pressure and you should project a powerful response.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It's not a very good sign to Obama's effort to try to establish negotiations with Iran. And I think, for the Obama administration, it's -- they'll just have to wait, I think, until after the elections are over.
MARGARET WARNER: In the meantime, American officials are still reviewing test data to see if the missile hit its intended target.