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Iran launches satellite; U.S. expresses concern

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran said it had launched a domestically made satellite into orbit for the first time on Tuesday, prompting further concern among Western powers and in Israel over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran said the launch of the Omid (Hope) research and telecom satellite was a major step in its space technology timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah.

The long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used for launching warheads, although Iran says it has no plans to do so.

“Dear Iranian nation, your children have placed the first indigenous satellite into orbit,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised message, adding the launch was successful.

Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said Omid was orbiting earth. The ISNA news agency quoted him as saying: “We have established communications with it and the necessary information has been received.”

Sending the Omid into space is a message to the world that Iran is “very powerful and you have to deal with us in the right way,” an Iranian political analyst said.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “Efforts to develop missile delivery capability, efforts that continue on an illicit nuclear program, or threats that Iran makes toward Israel and its sponsorship of terror are of acute concern to this administration.”

Gibbs repeated the words President Barack Obama has used since taking over last month that Washington will “use all elements of our national power to deal with Iran and to help it be a responsible member of the international community.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would show openness to Iran -- a change from a hard-line isolation policy under former President George W. Bush -- but urged it to respond in kind. “We are reaching out a hand, but the fist has to unclench,” Clinton told reporters.

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Iran has long said its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy purposes.


Senior officials from six world powers -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China -- will meet on Wednesday to discuss the nuclear row with Iran. It is their first meeting since Obama took office.

Speaking after meeting separately with British and French foreign ministers, Clinton said Washington would pursue “tough and direct” diplomacy with Tehran and said if Iran did not comply with international demands “there must be consequences.

Iranian state television showed footage of a rocket blasting off from a launchpad and lighting up the night sky as it streaked into space.

“With God’s help and the desire for justice and peace, the official presence of the Islamic Republic was registered in space,” Ahmadinejad said.

A U.S. security official in Washington said it was unclear what Iran intended to use the satellite for and the United States was still trying to learn more about it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters during a visit to Ethiopia the satellite had peaceful aims.

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But Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London said the news would prompt concern in Israel and elsewhere in the region.

“They will think that this civilian capability will soon be transformed to a military reconnaissance and intelligence gathering capability,” he said.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former head of The Israel Space Agency, told Reuters in Jerusalem: “If they managed to fire a satellite into space it means they can also reach Western Europe.”

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Iran is under U.N. and U.S. sanctions because of suspicions about Tehran’s nuclear plans.

The Islamic state, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, says its nuclear work has no military goals but is limited to generating electricity to meet domestic needs.

Ahmadinejad has set tough terms for talks with Obama’s administration, saying it must change policy not just tactics toward Tehran and apologize for past “crimes” against Iran.

Last August, Iran said it had put a dummy satellite into orbit with a domestically made rocket for the first time. U.S. officials said that launch had ended in failure.

Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at Israeli think tank the Fisher Brothers Institute, said Iran was only the ninth country in the world capable of both producing a satellite and sending it into space from a domestically made launcher.

“We should regard this satellite as the ‘Iranian Sputnik’,” he told Israel radio, saying Iran was the first to join this club after Israel in 1988. “The main value is ... propaganda.”

Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details for them to determine the extent of its technological advances, and say that Iranian technology largely consists of modifications of equipment supplied by China, North Korea and others.

The television broadcast said the Omid would return to Earth with data after orbiting for one to three months. Iran already had a satellite in orbit but the Sina-1 was launched by a Russian rocket in 2005, said the television.