Tehran has launched a solid-fuelled rocket with a satellite carrier, a day after Iran and the European Union agreed to resume stalled talks over the country’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers, state television has reported.
It is unclear when exactly the rocket was launched but the announcement came after satellite photos showed preparations at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of frequent failed attempts to put a satellite into orbit.
Iran had also acknowledged it planned tests for the satellite-carrying Zuljanah rocket. State-run media claimed the rocket launch was successful.
The news comes after the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell travelled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme and announced on Saturday that the US and Iran would resume indirect talks in the coming days.
The US says that such satellite launches defy a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to steer clear of any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component.
Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA quoted Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for the Defence Ministry, as saying the satellite carrier would gather information in low-earth orbit and would be critical to promote Iran’s space industry.
The White House said it was aware of Iran’s announcement and criticised the move as “unhelpful and destabilising”.
Mr Borrell said on Saturday that talks over the nuclear deal would resume in an unnamed Persian Gulf country in the coming days, with Iranian media reporting that Qatar would likely host the negotiations.
Former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed crushing sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by greatly ramping up its nuclear work and now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
In a further escalation that limits the international community’s view into its nuclear programme, Iran removed over two dozen International Atomic Energy Agency cameras from its nuclear sites this month. The agency’s director called the move a “fatal blow” to the tattered nuclear deal.
The White House said on Sunday it was committed to using sanctions and other measures to prevent further advances in Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
The US intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, published in March, claims such a satellite launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran as it uses “similar technologies”.
Even as Iran’s government has sharpened its focus on space, sending several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launching a monkey into space, the programme has seen recent troubles.
There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh programme, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers.
The launch pad used in the preparations for the launch of the Zuljanah rocket remains scarred from an explosion in August 2019.
Satellite images from February suggested a failed Zuljanah launch earlier this year, though Iran did not acknowledge it.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space programme by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard operates its own military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces.