The Sajjil is a solid fuel high-speed missile with a range of about 1,200 miles, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar said on state television. At that range, it could easily strike Iran's arch-foe Israel and go as far as southeastern Europe.
Solid-fuel missiles are more accurate than the liquid fuel missiles of similar range currently possessed by Iran. The country has had a solid-fuel missile with a shorter range - the Fateh, able to fly 120 miles - for several years.
The defense minister, quoted by Iran state television, said the two-stage missile with two solid-fuel engines has "an extraordinary high capability" but gave no further details. He did not say whether it was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The U.S. military and intelligence agencies observed the missile test on a range about 225 miles southeast of Tehran Wednesday through "national assets," a reference to classified imagery satellites and other kinds of sensors.
A senior U.S. military official contended the missile flew for just 9 seconds, covering 180 miles before veering off. The missile then exploded but it was unclear whether it was a malfunction or if it was programmed to self-destruct, the official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
The U.S. believes the launch tested the first stage of what would be a two-stage rocket. Iran tested the same rocket last year without apparent success, the official said.
But, in part due to Iran's attempts at missile development, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency urged President-elect Barack Obamato place missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which could be operational in 2014.
Najjar said the missile was a defensive weapon and not a response to threats against Iran. He didn't name any country, but Israel has recently threatened to take military action against Iran to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.
Najjar said the missile was part of a "defensive, deterrent strategy ... specifically with defensive objectives."
Israel's Foreign Ministry refused comment about the missile test.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the missile tests were not good for the stability of the region and were another sign that U.S. plans to construct a missile shield in Europe are critical to international security. He said Washington hoped Russia, which has criticized the proposed shield, would recognize the threat posed by Iran and realize the system is not aimed at Russia.
"I think it's pretty obvious when Iran launches one of these ballistic missiles, that this is something of concern to the international community, and I'm including Russia in the international community here," he said.
The name "Sajjil" means "baked clay," a reference to a story in the Quran, Islam's holy book, in which birds sent by God drive off an enemy army attacking the holy city of Mecca by pelting them with stones of baked clay.
Iran has intensified its domestic missile development in recent years, raising concerns of the U.S. and its allies at a time when they accuse the country of seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies it wants to build a bomb, saying its nuclear program is aimed only at generating electricity.
In a speech coinciding with the missile launch, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that his government would act against any threats.
"The Iranian nation defends its dignity. Should any power stand against the Iranian nation, the Iranian people will crush it under its foot and will strike it on the mouth," he said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
Ahmadinejad added that it doesn't matter who comes to power in America because the important question will be how a future U.S. administration will behave.
The Sajjil's range is about the same as Iran's other farthest-flying missiles - a version of the Shahab-3 unveiled in 2005 and the Ghadr, which was shown off at a September 2007 military parade. The Shahab-3 missile is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and its latest versions use a combination of liquid and solid fuel.
Iran launched an arms development program during its 1980-88 war with Iraq to compensate for a U.S. weapons embargo. Since 1992, Iran has produced its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and a fighter plane. Najjar said the Sajjil was built by the Defense Ministry's aerospace department.