Iran ratcheted up tensions with its neighbors and with the U.S. Wednesday with the successful launch of its first-ever military satellite, even as Tehran pleads for U.S. sanctions relief and help from the international community to help battle one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
Officials in Washington harshly criticized the Iranian move, which came even as President Trump himself was escalating the clash with a 23-word tweet saying he was giving the U.S. Navy new orders to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian vessels that harass U.S. military ships in the tense Persian Gulf.
Pentagon officials characterized Mr. Trump’s tweet as an additional “warning” to Iran to back off on its recent provocations, while the top general at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hailed the Iranian-made military intelligence satellite launch as a potential game-changer.
“Today, we can observe the world from the space,” Gen. Hossein Salami told Iran’s Tasnim news agency, “which means the expansion of the strategic data of the IRGC’s mighty defense power.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that Iran’s satellite launch was technically equivalent to a ballistic missile and thus a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. He said the mission also undermined Iran’s claims that its space programs were for civilian uses only.
“The Iranians have consistently said that these missile programs were disconnected from their military — that these were purely commercial enterprises,” Mr. Pompeo said. “I think today’s launch proves what we’ve been saying all along here in the United States: The IRGC, a designated terrorist organization, launched a missile.”
“Every nation has an obligation to go to the United Nations and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent with that Security Council resolution,” he added. “I don’t think it remotely is and I think Iran needs to be held accountable.”
Iranian state media said the “Noor-1” satellite was thrust into space by a “domestically-built launcher” called the “Qassed,” a three-stage system that uses “compound solid-liquid fuel.”
Iran’s official Fars News Agency said Wednesday also marked the 41st anniversary of the founding of the IRGC by Iran’s late leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An image of the rocket that carried the satellite showed it bore a Quranic verse typically recited when going on a journey, as well as a drawing of the Earth with the word Allah in Farsi wrapped around it.
The IRGC has been a prime focus of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” on Iran since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. The Trump administration last year designated the organization as a terrorist organization and U.S.-Iran tensions skyrocketed in January when an American drone strike killed IRGC special “Quds Force” commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani while on a visit to Iraq.
While the administration accused Gen. Soleimani of exporting terror around the Middle East by backing Shia Muslim proxy militias in Iraq and other nations, a separate U.S. concern about the IRGC has centered on organization’s weapons capabilities. U.S. officials have for years worried that Iran might develop nuclear warheads that could be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs.
To date, Iran has not shown a clear ICBM capability. However, Wednesday’s satellite launch amplified such fears, with some claiming the technology used in the launch — at a minimum — shows the IRGC is actively using such technology.
Analysts have long warned that if Tehran gains ICBM capability, it could put Europe and even the United States in range. Israel’s capital city is roughly 1,200 miles from Tehran.
While some in the international community blame the Trump administration for provoking Iran by pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian officials have in recent months been deliberately going past limitations set by the deal. And, as the world now grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and historically low price of oil — a commodity Tehran depends upon to fund itself — Wednesday’s launch may indicate a rising IRGC appetite for provocation.
“This raises a lot of red flags,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
“Now that you have the maximum pressure campaign, Iran doesn’t have that much to lose anymore,” Mr. Hinz told The Associated Press.
Former Trump administration National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, an avowed Iran hawk, went further, claiming Wednesday’s launch was “proof we are still not applying enough pressure.”
“Deterrence has not been restored, & coronavirus is not slowing down the ayatollahs. Iran’s goal remains ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear weapons,” Mr. Bolton tweeted. “They cannot be trusted.”
Iran denies engaging in any military provocations. Iranian Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi wrote on Twitter Wednesday that the IRGC’s space program was “defensive” in nature and “peaceful.”
However Iranian state media appeared to offering deliberately provocative messages about the country’s military — and specifically missile — capabilities. A Fars news report described the satellite launch as part of a “chain of achievements and breakthroughs” by Iran’s armed forces.
The report cited IRGC Navy Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri as saying earlier in the week that Iran had increased the range of its naval missiles to roughly 430 miles. On its official website, the IRGC claimed Wednesday’s satellite reached an orbit of 264 miles above the Earth’s surface.
U.S. Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said American officials were monitoring Iran’s program. “While Tehran does not currently have intercontinental ballistic missiles,” he said, “its desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to develop an ICBM.”
Iran had suffered several high-profile launch failures in recent months. The latest came in February, when a Zafar 1 communications satellite failed to reach its intended orbit.
Wednesday’s launch came after a U.S. Navy video last week showed small Iranian fast boats coming close to American warships as they operated in the northern Persian Gulf near Kuwait, with U.S. Army Apache helicopters. On Sunday, the IRGC acknowledged it had a tense encounter with U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, but said that American forces sparked the incident.
A television report with footage of the incident apparently sparked Mr. Trump’s Twitter threat Wednesday. Officials at the Pentagon echoed Mr. Trump’s stern rhetoric about Tehran, but sidestepped questions of whether a formal change in the rules of military engagement with Iran and the IRGC was in the works.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing Wednesday said the president’s intention was to emphasize that any warship has the inherent right of self-defense.
“I like that the president warned an adversary. That’s what he’s doing: He’s providing a warning,” Gen. Hyten said.
“If you want to go down that path, we will come and we will come large. So don’t go down that path,” Gen. Hyten added. “We understand that direction and every commander deployed has the ability to execute.”
Gen. Hyten and Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist repeatedly declined to answer whether Mr. Trump’s tweet was being formalized as an actual order changing the rules of engagement with the IRGC.
Mr. Norquist also described the president’s tweet a warning, and suggested it gave greater force to the authority U.S. commanders already have in the escalating confrontation with Iran.
“What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense,” Mr. Norquist said.
Mr. Pompeo said the satellite launch was one more sign of how the Tehran regime had mishandled the COVID-19 threat, with Iran having by far the deadliest outbreak in the region.
“One of the things that they’ve said is, ‘Boy we need resources in order to take care of the virus at home,’ and all the while they are launching satellites, driving ships around the Arabian Gulf, coming and harassing U.S. Naval vessels [and] they continue to underwrite Shia militias,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Noting that the regime turned down a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid for the Iranian people in February, Mr. Pompeo remarked, “I only wish that the Iranian regime cared about its people as much as the rest of the world has demonstrated.”
⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this story, which was based in part on wire service reports.