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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran said on Wednesday it had launched a Kavoshgar-3 rocket capable of carrying a satellite, a move Washington described as a "provocative act."
Western powers fear Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs and that the long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit can also be used to launch warheads. Iran says its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the launch was a huge breakthrough which would help break "the global domineering system" -- a reference to Iran's Western foes.
"A launch like that is obviously a provocative act," White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters.
"But the president believes that it is not too late for Iran to do the right thing -- come to the table with the international community and live up to its international obligations."
France, which together with the United States, Britain and Germany is discussing a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, said it would press for strong measures against Tehran at the United Nations, with time running out for a political solution.
"We are going to seek the adoption of a new resolution at the United Nations incorporating strong sanctions," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad had struck a more conciliatory note, saying Iran was ready to send its enriched uranium abroad in what appeared to be an easing of its position in the dispute.
Speaking at a ceremony unveiling satellite technology, Ahmadinejad said Iran hoped to send astronauts into space soon.
State Press TV showed a rocket blasting off from a desert launchpad leaving a thick vapor trail. The home-built Kavoshgar-3 (Explorer-3) carried "living organisms," it said.
ISNA news agency said the capsule successfully returned to earth with its "passengers" -- a mouse, worms and two turtles.
Mark Fitzpatrick at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said the launch was one of a series and not particularly more significant than others.
"They contribute to Iran's ballistic missile capabilities, but do not foretell an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) capability or anything else capable of threatening Western Europe or the U.S. homeland," Fitzpatrick said.
Western counter-proliferation sources also said the Kavoshgar-3 was not a military system and was not a threat.
The rocket, propelled by liquid fuel, was a testing device for space systems that normally rises about 100 km (60 miles) above the surface of the earth before returning on a parachute.
In May 2009, a U.S.-Russia assessment estimated Iran was six to eight years away from producing a ballistic missile able to deliver a 1,000 kg nuclear warhead to a range of 2,000 km.
On Monday, a Pentagon report said Iran had expanded its ballistic missile capabilities and posed a significant threat to U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East region.
In December, Iran said it test-fired a long-range, upgraded Sejil 2 missile. Britain said at the time the launch was of serious concern and underlined the case for tougher sanctions.
The Iranian president made no mention of the nuclear row at the aerospace event.
Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday Iran was ready to send its enriched uranium abroad in exchange for nuclear fuel. He appeared for the first time to drop Tehran's long-standing conditions on a deal with global powers.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Turkey on Wednesday, said Tehran was considering the swap option.
"The swap formula is a more confidence-inspiring formula compared to other formulas. For that reason, we have to keep that formula on the table," he told a news conference in Ankara.
He said Iran was in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russia, France and the United States in Vienna.
The United States said that if Iran was serious it should tell the IAEA. Russia said it would welcome an Iranian decision on enrichment and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran must make real concessions and not just talk about them.
"If that doesn't happen and it's all just tactics, the international community will agree on further measures. Then sanctions cannot be ruled out," he told N-24 television.
Analysts believe that because of the threat of sanctions, Iran is trying to buy time to evade more domestic pressure. Ahmadinejad has been in favor of the deal because he wanted to win some legitimacy following last year's disputed presidential elections that have triggered anti-government protests.
"Ahmadinejad wanted a deal, wanted some sort of agreement with the international community, especially with the United States, because it is clear he thought he would be able to use a foreign policy success to enhance his domestic standing," Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Austrian broadcaster ORF.
"The deal is not struck just because the president says Iran is ready for a deal ... This is simply a sign that Iran is ready to come back to the negotiating table."
U.S. General David Petraeus told Reuters this week any military strike on Iran to quash its nuclear ambitions could have the unintended consequence of stirring nationalist sentiment to the benefit of Ahmadinejad's government.
Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Mark Heinrich in Vienna, Deborah Charles in Washington, and Dave Graham in Berlin; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Charles Dick