Iran says launched military satellite into orbit, US tensions simmer

Tehran (AFP) - Iran said it put its first military satellite into orbit Wednesday, making it an emerging "world power", as US President Donald Tump issued a new threat amid rising naval tensions in the Gulf.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps broke the news of what it said was its own satellite launch, hailing it as a milestone for the country's space programme.

"Today, we are looking at the Earth from the sky, and it is the beginning of the formation of a world power," the Guards' commander Hossein Salami said, quoted by Fars news agency.

The United States alleges that Iran's satellite programme is a cover for its development of missiles, including ones that could one day carry nuclear warheads.

Iran maintains it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, and says its aerospace activities are peaceful and comply with a UN Security Council resolution.

Tensions between the arch foes again escalated last week with the US accusing Iran of harassing its ships in the Gulf.

US President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to say he had "instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea".

Sepahnews, the Revolutionary Guards' website, said the satellite dubbed the Nour -- meaning "light" in Persian -- had been launched from the Markazi desert, a vast expanse in Iran's central plateau.

The satellite "orbited the Earth at 425 kilometres (264 miles)" above sea level, said Sepahnews.

Iran's regional rival Israel said it "strongly condemns" what it called Iran's "attempt" to launch a military satellite.

It urged more international sanctions for what it called "a facade" for Iran's continued development of advanced missiles, including ones that could deliver a nuclear warhead.

Trump's hawkish former national security adviser John Bolton said the launch was "proof we are still not applying enough pressure" on Iran.

"Iran's goal remains ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) capable of carrying nuclear weapons. They cannot be trusted," he tweeted.

- 'Great national achievement' -

Iranian state television aired footage from multiple angles of a rocket blasting off into a mostly clear blue sky.

The rocket bore the name Qassed, meaning "messenger", in what appears to be the first time Iran has used a launcher of this type.

Its fuselage also bore a koranic inscription that read: "Glory be to God who made this available to us, otherwise we could not have done it."

There was no way to independently verify the details and timing of the reported launch.

Iran's Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi took to Twitter to congratulate the Guards' air force, adding he had visited the launch site three weeks ago.

"They were great," he said of the satellite and what he described as a "three-stage solid fuel" launcher.

Iran has repeatedly tried and failed to launch satellites in the past.

The most recent attempt was on February 9 when it said it launched but was unable to put into orbit the Zafar, which means "victory" in Persian.

- High-seas encounter -

Iran and the United States have appeared to be on the brink of an all-out confrontation twice in the past year.

Their long-standing acrimony was exacerbated in 2018 when Trump unilaterally withdrew from a multilateral deal that froze Iran's nuclear programme, before issuing demands that it curtail its development of ballistic missiles.

Tensions escalated again in January when the US killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Guards' foreign operations arm, in a drone strike in Iraq.

The US Department of Defense last week accused Iran of "dangerous and provocative" actions in the Gulf.

It said 11 Guards boats "repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns" of US vessels in international waters.

Iran said the US gave a "Hollywood" account of the encounter and warned that any "miscalculation will receive a decisive response".

Washington has also raised concerns in the past about Tehran's satellite programme, saying the launch of a carrier rocket in January 2019 amounted to a violation of limits on its ballistic missiles.

The Islamic republic, battling one of the world's deadliest novel coronavirus outbreaks at the same time as dealing with crippling US sanctions, has accused Washington of "economic terrorism".

Tehran says the punitive measures have denied it access to medical equipment needed to fight the virus.

Iran has declared that the disease has claimed the lives of nearly 5,400 people and infected almost 86,000 since the outbreak emerged on February 19.

The number of Iranians killed and sickened by the virus is widely thought to be much higher, however.

Iran has requested a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to help it tackle the outbreak.

But the US, which effectively holds a veto at the IMF, has signalled it has no intention of agreeing to such a line of credit.

April 22, 2020