Iran successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit, triggering protests from the US and stoking already high tensions over Tehran’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said the satellite “Noor”, or “Light”, was orbiting 425 km above the earth.
The Pentagon declined to confirm whether Noor was in orbit and operational, saying it would take time to make an assessment. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the launch.
Putting a satellite in space would be a major advance for Iran’s military following repeated recent failed launch attempts.
Iran’s Guards Corps said it used the Qased, or “Messenger”, carrier to launch Noor.
“The three-stage Qased satellite launcher uses a combination of solid and liquid fuels,” it said.
The US military says the same long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could allow Tehran to launch longer range weapons, possibly someday nuclear warheads.
“It went a long way which means, it has the ability to threaten neighbours, our allies, and we want to make sure they never threaten the US,” Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news briefing.
Tehran denies US assertions the activity is a cover for ballistic missile development and has never pursued development of nuclear weapons.
A UN resolution in 2015 “called on” Iran to refrain for up to eight years from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons following an agreement with six world powers. Some states said the language did not make it obligatory.
On Wednesday, Pompeo said the launch was inconsistent with the UN resolution.
“I think every nation has an obligation to go to the UN and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent with that Security Council resolution,” Pompeo said at a news conference.
“I don’t think it remotely is and I think Iran needs to be held accountable,” he added.
President Donald Trump’s administration in May 2018 withdrew from the 2015 accord and re-imposed sanctions on Iran.
Trump said the deal to curbs Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for Tehran halting sensitive nuclear work, did not include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for its proxies in the Middle East.
Iranian TV footage showed the satellite carrier inscribed with a verse from the Koran Muslims often recite when travelling: “Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, as we could never have done it by our own efforts”.
Analysts said the launch ratcheted up tensions but was unlikely to lead to a confrontation.
“This is psychological warfare to send a message and tell the adversary ‘we are ready to stop any offensive’,” Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army brigadier general and analyst, told Reuters.
Regional tensions have been high since the start of the year, when the US killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a Baghdad drone strike. Iran retaliated firing missiles at bases in Iraq, causing brain injuries among US troops at one.
Trump instructed the Navy to fire on Iranian ships if harassed, a week after 11 vessels from the Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) came dangerously close to US vessels in the Gulf.
“I instructed the US Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” Trump wrote in a tweet, hours after the satellite launch.
Iran responded immediately, saying the US should focus on saving its military from the coronavirus outbreak “instead of bullying others”.
Senior Pentagon officials said Trump’s comments were meant as a warning.
“He was emphasising all our ships retain the right to self-defence,” said Deputy Defence Secretary David Norquist.
US ally Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognise, condemned Iran’s satellite launch.
“Israel calls on the international community to impose further sanctions on the Iranian regime to deter it from continuing dangerous and opposing activity,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.