Iran satellite launch is symbolic step: U.S. official

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 3, 2009 5:46pm GMT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran has launched its first satellite in a step that has important symbolism but does not itself alter the strategic balance in the region, a U.S. national security official said on Tuesday.

"The satellite technology they have deployed is probably not state of the art, but for the Iranians this is an important symbolic step forward," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran said earlier it had launched a domestically made satellite into orbit for the first time, a move which could further fuel worries by Israel and Western powers over its nuclear ambitions.

U.S. and British officials said the Iranian satellite program may use technology that could be used for ballistic missiles, and noted the United Nations has sought to discourage Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Iran has long said its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy purposes.

"That's of grave concern to us," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters of the satellite.

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said the launch "underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about Iran's intentions," adding it sent the "wrong signal to the international community."

It is unclear what Iran intends to use the satellite for, and the United States is still trying to learn more about it, the U.S. security official said.

However, asked if the launch could have a strategic or tactical impact on the region, the official said, "this particular satellite launch does not appear to be a game changer at all."

He said the satellite was in a low orbit and noted that some satellites last only a short time aloft. "This one may fit into that category," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming, Andrew Gray and Reuters London bureau; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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