TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran launched a rocket on Monday designed to send its first homemade research satellite into orbit in the next year, state television said, a move likely to add to Western concerns about Tehran’s nuclear plans.
The technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used for launching weapons, analysts said.
The West fears Iran is trying to master nuclear technology so it can build weapons. Iran insists its plans are peaceful.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad read out the launch countdown before the rocket blasted off to chants of “God is greatest” by an audience of officials in a control room, state TV reported.
“The implications of (the test) are very interesting. If they can send a satellite into orbit ... the Israelis will claim there is no reason why they can’t launch a weapon system in the same way or why they can’t make a long-range ballistic missile,” London-based defence analyst Paul Beaver said.
TV footage showed the rocket soaring into the sky from a desert launch pad, leaving a vapour trail. A parachute appeared to drop from the rocket shortly after the launch. State television gave few details about the rocket.
State media said the research satellite, called Omid (Hope), would be launched by March 2009.
“We need to have an active and influential presence in space,” Ahmadinejad said in a televised ceremony. “Building and launching a satellite is a very important achievement.”
“Iran took its first step (to establish a presence in space) very strongly, precisely and wisely,” he said shortly before blast-off.
Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details for them to determine the significance of its technological advances, and much Iranian technology consists of modifications of equipment supplied by China, North Korea and others.
But Beaver said Iran was making technological progress.
“I think it is yet another indication that Iran’s technology is moving very quickly up the scale,” he told Reuters.
Iran’s military, while no technological match for U.S. forces, could still target U.S. interests in the Middle East, experts say.
“I think Israel and the Americans will be concerned about this (launch),” Beaver said.
Iran, which refuses to recognise Israel, has an array of medium-range missiles. It says its longest-range missile has a range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles), meaning it could hit Israel and U.S. military bases in the Gulf.
Ahmadinejad has often predicted the demise of Israel but insists the Islamic Republic is not a threat to the Jewish state or any other country.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of aiming to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, says its nuclear programme is designed only to generate electricity and preserve its oil and gas for export.
Editing by Tim Pearce