TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran launched a rocket on Monday designed to carry its first locally-made research satellite next year, showing the country’s advances in ballistics at a time when Western powers are already jittery about its nuclear plans.
The United States, the Islamic Republic’s arch foe, called the rocket test “unfortunate” and said it would only further isolate Tehran from the international community.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad read out the launch countdown before it blasted off to chants of “God is greatest” by an audience of officials in a control room, state TV reported.
The technology used to put satellites into space could also be used for launching weapons, but analysts voiced different opinions about the significance of Iran’s latest announcement.
The West fears Iran is trying to master nuclear technology so it can build bombs. Iran insists its plans are peaceful.
Britain-based defense analyst Paul Beaver said the implications of the test may worry the United States and Israel.
“The Israelis will claim there is no reason why they (Iran) can’t launch a weapon system in the same way or why they can’t make a long-range ballistic missile,” he said.
Television footage showed the rocket soaring into the sky from a desert launch pad, leaving a vapor trail. A parachute appeared to drop from the rocket shortly after the launch. State television gave few details about the rocket.
“This achievement will ... strengthen Iran’s position in the region and the world,” said Reza Talainik, a member of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and National Security committee.
State media said the research satellite, called Omid (Hope), would be launched by March 2009.
“We need to have an active and influential presence in space,” Ahmadinejad said in a televised ceremony as he inaugurated a new space centre in Tehran. “Building and launching a satellite is a very important achievement.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: “It’s unfortunate Iran continues to test ballistic missiles. This regime continues to take steps that only further isolate it and the Iranian people from the international community.”
Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details for them to determine the extent of its technological advances, and much Iranian technology consists of modifications of equipment supplied by China, North Korea and others.
But Beaver said Iran was making technological progress: “I think it is yet another indication that Iran’s technology is moving very quickly up the scale.”
Defense analyst Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London agreed that Iran was advancing but he said the test was nothing remarkable as the country had already developed ballistic missiles.
“We know Iran can fire missiles. This proves nothing new in terms of technology and capability,” Brookes said.
But he noted it came just a few weeks after Israel, Iran’s arch foe in the Middle East, tested a missile. Israel is widely assumed to have nuclear warheads and missiles able to hit Iran.
“This could be Iran telling Israel that whatever you can do we can do too,” Brookes said.
Iran, which refuses to recognize Israel, has an array of medium-range missiles. It says its longest-range missile can reach 2,000 km (1,250 miles), meaning it could hit Israel and U.S. military bases in the Gulf.
Ahmadinejad has often predicted the demise of Israel but insists the Islamic Republic is not a threat to any country.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of aiming to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, says its nuclear program is designed only to generate electricity and preserve its oil and gas for export.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Charles Dick