Iran announced its first-ever successful satellite launch yesterday, a step into the space age as well as a showy demonstration of firepower amid continued concerns about Tehran's nuclear program and regional ambitions.
The satellite, called Omid, or "hope," was apparently launched into orbit late Monday or early yesterday using an Iranian-made Safir-2 carrier rocket, the official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, reported.
State television showed fire erupting from a rocket painted with the red, white and green colors of the Iranian flag as it rose against a pitch-black sky.
A U.S. Pentagon official and other analysts confirmed the launch. Western officials said it underscored international concern about Iran's increased mastery of missile technology that could be used for military purposes. "This action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Iran said the satellite and upcoming launches were meant for peaceful scientific purposes to meet the country's domestic needs, IRNA reported. Iran joins a list of only nine other nations and a European consortium that have successfully launched satellites into orbit.
"Your children have sent Iran's first domestic satellite into orbit," Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, according to the Web site of the state-owned English-language Press TV news channel. "Iran's official presence in space has been added to the pages of history." The two-stage rocket launch, confirmed in official data publicized by physicists at several Web sites, also showed Iran's ability to defy U.S. and international sanctions aimed at denying it technologies with both military and civilian applications.
Iran and the West are at odds over Iran's nuclear program, which the U.S., Israel and others suspect is ultimately meant to produce weapons and Tehran insists is for peaceful civilian purposes only. Its drive to master the production of potentially dual-use nuclear fuel has been accompanied by an effort to improve the range and accuracy of its rockets.
"The technology that is used to get this satellite into orbit . . . is one that could also be used to propel long range ballistic missiles," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters in Washington.
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood called the launch "a matter of great concern" and told reporters any attempt by Iran to improve its military capacity violates United Nations Security Council resolutions forbidding Iran from developing its missile technology.
The launch doesn't alter the region's strategic calculus. Iran has long had missiles which could reach 800 or so miles away to its regional rival, Israel. One expert estimated that Iran could now theoretically deliver a payload of up to 1,500 pounds about 1,500 miles away, allowing it a greater range, but one that does not yet reach North America and much of Europe.
At the same time, "Once someone has the ability to launch something into space, it can, in fact, reach every place on the face of the Earth," Uzi Rubin, a former Israeli defense official, said in a television interview aired in Israel.