WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran’s attempted satellite launch was a failure that fell far short of claimed successes, U.S. security officials said on Tuesday, but an analyst said the test still marked progress toward a potential weapon.
“The attempted launch failed,” a U.S. intelligence official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The vehicle failed shortly after liftoff and in no way reached its intended position,” the official said. “It could be characterized as a dramatic failure.”
A U.S. defense official gave a similar characterization of the test as unsuccessful.
But Charles Vick, a senior analyst for GlobalSecurity.org research group, said Iran appeared to have succeeded in igniting the second stage of its booster rocket and gained data that will help it perfect its launch system. The technology could also be used to develop a rocket capable of carrying nuclear weapons that could strike Europe or China, he said.
He based his assessments of the test on photographs, public reporting and earlier analyses.
“They’re not there yet and that’s to be expected but this is a step forward that has implications strategically,” Vick said.
Iran, embroiled in a standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions, said on Sunday it has put a dummy satellite into orbit on a home-grown rocket for the first time.
Iran denies Western accusations that it is developing nuclear weapons and says that it seeks nuclear technology to generate electricity.
Iranian television showed the rocket on its launch pad but did not show the actual lift-off.
Iran gave no description of the satellite’s orbit, an indication it did not reach orbit but failed some time earlier, Vick said.
“The failed launch shows that the purported Iranian space program is in its nascent stages at best — they have a long way to go,” the U.S. intelligence official said.
The test follows what appeared to be an unannounced test failure of the same Safir vehicle in February, Vick said. That was followed on the same day by the successful launch of another rocket in its space program.
The White House has called on Iran to stop testing ballistic missiles.
“The Iranian development and testing of rockets is troubling and raises further questions about their intentions,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on Sunday.
The latest Iranian test was observed from a U.S. ship somewhere in the Gulf region and was headed toward the Indian Ocean, Vick said. He said the second stage ignited before another failure brought the rocket down — a step forward from the February test. Where it came down was unclear.
Vick said he had earlier identified seven flaws in the rocket design, which he declined to specify, and just one of them appeared clearly to have been fixed in the latest test. However, it appeared the dummy satellite was a flight-recorder box that sent back information to the launch officials.
“What Iran has said, in effect, they understand what went wrong from the telemetry dump that took place.”
“That will probably key them into some of the issues of the design flaws,” he said.
Despite the setback, Iran appeared within “reasonable striking distance” of meeting a previously stated goal of putting a domestically made research satellite into orbit by next March, Vick said.
Another U.S. official noted that the United States, China, the Soviet Union and India had all experienced launch failures on the way to successful space technology development.
“It does telegraph a message about their ability, even if it’s on a very limited basis, to marshal a technology to produce a result,” said the official.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Anthony Boadle