Iran launches rocket into space amid nuclear talks

TEHERAN, Iran – Iran launched a missile into space using a three-device satellite carrier, authorities said Thursday, without saying whether any of the objects entered Earth orbit.

It was not clear when the launch would take place or what equipment the porter was bringing. Iran broadcast footage of the explosion against the backdrop of the negotiations in Vienna on the restoration of Tehran’s tattered nuclear agreement with the world powers. An eighth round started this week and should be resumed after the New Year break.

Previous launches have drawn allegations from the United States. The US military did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday’s announcement from Iran. However, the Foreign Ministry said it remained concerned about Iran’s space launches, which are “a significant proliferation concern” in relation to Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Ahmad Hosseini, a Defense Department spokesman, identified the missile as Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” a missile that sent the three devices up 470 kilometers (290 miles).

“The space center performance and the satellite carrier performance were properly executed,” Hosseini is quoted as saying.

But hours later, Hosseini and other officials remained silent about the status of the objects, suggesting the missile had failed to put its payload into orbit. Hosseini offered the satellite carrier a speed that, according to state-affiliated journalists who covered the event, would not be sufficient to reach orbit.

Iran’s civil space program has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including deadly fires and a missile explosion that caught the attention of former President Donald Trump.

Iranian state media recently offered a list of upcoming satellite launches for the Islamic Republic’s civil space program. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard operates its own parallel program that successfully launched a satellite into orbit last year. Hosseini described the start announced on Thursday as “first”, which suggests that more are on the way.

The television broadcast footage of the white rocket, adorned with the words “Simorgh satellite carrier” and the slogan “We can”, that shot into the morning sky from the Iranian spaceport Imam Khomeini. A state television reporter at a nearby desert location hailed the launch as “another achievement by Iranian scientists”.

The explosions have raised concerns in Washington about whether satellite launch technology could advance ballistic missile development in Iran. The United States says such satellite launches contradict a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to refrain from any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Launchers “have technologies that are virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles, including longer-range systems,” the State Department said late Thursday. “The United States continues to use all of its non-proliferation instruments to prevent further development of the Iranian missile programs and urges other countries to take steps to address Iranian missile development activities.”

Iran, which has long declared that it will not seek nuclear weapons, is maintaining its satellite launches and missile testing has no military component.

The missile launch announcement while diplomats struggle to restore the Tehran nuclear deal adheres to Tehran’s tough stance under President Ebrahim Raisi, a recently elected Conservative clergyman.

New Iranian demands in the nuclear talks have angered Western nations and exacerbated regional tensions, while Tehran drives nuclear advances. Diplomats have repeatedly sounded the alarm that time is running out to restore the deal that failed three years ago when Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the deal.

From Vienna, Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani told Iranian state television that he hoped the diplomats would do “more serious work to lift the sanctions” when the nuclear talks resume next week. He described last week’s negotiations as “positive”.

However, Washington has poured cold water on Tehran’s optimistic assessments. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters earlier this week that “it is really too early to say whether Iran has returned to this round with a more constructive approach.”

Iran has now given up all restrictions of the agreement and increased uranium enrichment from below 4 percent purity to 60 percent – a short technical step from the level of weapon quality. International inspectors face challenges in monitoring Tehran’s progress.

Satellite imagery from The Associated Press indicated a launch was imminent earlier this month. The pictures showed preparations at the spaceport in the desert plains of the rural Iranian province of Semnan, about 240 kilometers southeast of Tehran.

Iran has launched several short-lived satellites into orbit over the past decade, and launched a monkey into space in 2013. But under Raisi, the government seems to have sharpened its focus on space. Iran’s Supreme Space Council met for the first time in eleven years.

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