TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian state television said on Sunday that Tehran had launched a solid-fuel rocket into space, prompting a rebuke from Washington ahead of the expected resumption of stalled talks over Tehran’s ruptured nuclear deal with world powers.
It’s unclear when or where the rocket was launched, but the announcement came after satellite photos showed the preparations at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of Iran’s frequent failed attempts to launch a satellite into orbit.
State-run media broadcast dramatic images of the blast against the backdrop of heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program, which continues under waning international scrutiny.
Iran had previously admitted that it had planned more tests for the satellite-carrying rocket, which it first launched in February last year.
Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for Iran’s Defense Ministry, said Zuljanah, a 25.5-meter-long missile, was capable of carrying a 220-kilogram (485-pound) satellite that would eventually collect data in low Earth orbit and would promote the Iranian aerospace industry. Zuljanah is named after the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The White House said it was aware of Iran’s announcement and criticized the move as “useless and destabilizing”.
The launch comes just a day after Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, traveled to Tehran to reinvigorate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that had stalled for months. There are still a few key sticking points, including Tehran’s demand that Washington lift terrorism sanctions against its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Borrell said on Saturday that talks over the nuclear deal will resume in the coming days in an undisclosed country in the Persian Gulf, with Iranian media reporting Qatar would likely host the negotiations.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal in 2018 and again imposed crushing sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by ramping up its nuclear work and is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons level.
In a further escalation that limits the international community’s view of its nuclear program, Iran this month removed more than two dozen International Atomic Energy Agency cameras from its nuclear sites. The agency’s director called the move a “fatal blow” to the tattered nuclear deal.
Tehran’s missile launches have sounded the alarm in Washington amid the unraveling of the nuclear deal. The US warns that the launches violate a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to refrain from any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
The White House said Sunday it is determined to use sanctions and other measures to prevent further progress in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
The US intelligence agency’s 2022 threat analysis, published in March, claims that such a satellite launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran because it uses “similar technologies”.
Iran, which has long said it is not seeking nuclear weapons, is maintaining its satellite launches and missile tests have no military component.
Even as the Iranian government has sharpened its focus on space, sending several short-lived satellites into orbit and launching a monkey into space in 2013, the program has encountered recent problems. There have been five consecutive launch failures for the Simorgh program, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers.
The launch pad used in the preparations for the launch of the Zuljanah rocket remains scarred by an explosion in August 2019 that even attracted the attention of then-President Trump† He later tweeted what appeared to be a secret surveillance photo of the failed launch. February satellite images suggested a failed launch of Zuljanah earlier this year, though Iran did not acknowledge it.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in April 2020 has unveiled its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard operates its own military infrastructure, parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces.
DeBre reports this from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Tom Strong in Washington contributed to this report.