On Sunday, the Iranian state television network showed impressive footage of a slender white rocket blasting off from a launch pad, leaving behind billows of smoke. Iranian officials say that the rocket, named Safir, or "ambassador," successfully reached orbit, demonstrating the technological known-how to send up satellites.
The rocket released equipment that beamed flight data back to ground control, said Reza Taghipoor, the head of Iran's Space Agency, in a live television interview [AP].
Yet shortly after Iranian officials boasted of their fledgling space program, unnamed sources from the U.S. Defense Department began disputing those claims of a successful launch.
"The Iranians did not successfully launch the rocket," a senior U.S. defense official told CNN Monday. The two-stage rocket could have been capable of launching a satellite into space, but the U.S. intelligence assessment shows that the second stage "was erratic and out of control," said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. The rocket "did not perform as designed," the official said [CNN].
Iran's rocket-building capacities are of urgent interest to the United States and its allies, because the rockets used to send satellites into space could also be used to deliver nuclear weapons. In light of the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials responded to this weekend's attempted launch with dismay.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "The Iranian development and testing of rockets is troubling and raises further questions about their intentions. This action and dual use possibilities for their ballistic missile programme are inconsistent with their UN Security Council obligations" [BBC News].
Ahmadinejad has made Iran's scientific development one of the main themes of his presidency, asserting that the country has reached a peak of progress despite sanctions and no longer needs to depend on foreign states for help. "This satellite, the rocket and the launch station are entirely Iranian-built, achieved by particularly talented scientists and technicians," Ahmadinejad told reporters in Turkey last week, announcing that the satellite would be launched soon [AFP].
Iranian officials have said they need satellites to monitor for natural disasters and improve telecommunications. Image: Islamic Republic News Agency