Monday, August 18, 2008

TEHRAN | Iran said it had sent a home-built rocket carrying a dummy satellite into space on Sunday, in a move that could further exacerbate tensions with the West over its nuclear drive.

“The Safir [Ambassador] rocket was successfully launched. All its systems … are Iranian made,” Reza Taghipour, head of Iran’s space agency, told state television, adding that a “test satellite was put into orbit.”

“We have paved the way for placing a satellite in space in the future,” state television said, showing images of the pre-dawn rocket launch.

Western governments, which suspect Iran is trying to build an atomic weapon, have voiced concern that the technology used in the Islamic republic’s space program could be diverted to military use, claims denied by Tehran.

A top Iranian official told Agence France-Presse that initial reports by state media that the country’s first domestically built communications satellite, called Omid or Hope, had been launched were not correct.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “The Iranian media is mistaken. It was the launch of a rocket capable of carrying a satellite. The Omid satellite was not launched itself.”

Sunday’s development comes amid an international standoff over Tehran’s long-standing refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that makes nuclear fuel but also the core of an atomic bomb.

Israel and its staunch ally, the United States, have never ruled out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, although currently Washington has said it is pursuing the diplomatic option.

On Sunday, Iran’s air force commander said its fighter jets have been upgraded to allow them to fly 1,860 miles without refueling, which would put Israel easily within reach.

“We do not wish to attack another country … but we will defend ourselves should we be attacked,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad Mighani added, without mentioning Israel.

In February, Iran triggered international concern when it said it had sent a probe into space on the back of a rocket to prepare for a satellite launch, and announced the opening of its space station in a remote western desert.

The United States condemned what it said was the launch of a ballistic missile, and Russia had also voiced concern. Israel has conducted long-range military exercises, which many analysts think reflects preparation for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran is risking a possible fourth round of U.N. sanctions after it failed to give a clear response to an incentives package offered by six major world powers in return for halting uranium enrichment.

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