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Iran fires rocket 'into space', plans satellite for '09

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The Islamic Republic of Iran announced yesterday that it had fired a rocket "into space" and transmitted footage of the launch on state media. The move drew instant condemnation from the Bush administration in America.

According to Iranian state TV, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally called out the countdown before the rocket blasted off from a remote desert launchpad. The liftoff was accompanied by chants of "God is great" from officials gathered in the control room. The Iranian government gave few details of the rocket's capability, saying only that it had "reached space".

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe stated unequivocally that the test was threatening, saying: "It's unfortunate Iran continues to test ballistic missiles. This regime continues to take steps that only further isolate it and the Iranian people from the international community."

Iran already claims intermediate-range ballistic missile capability which would allow it to hit targets in Israel. Rockets in this class could offer the capability to "reach space" in that they could soar beyond the atmosphere and then fall back down, but this is of limited use.

However, Iranian officials also claim that they intend to place a satellite called Omid (Hope) into orbit in 2009. Such a launch would be of significance, as a rocket stack which can place a payload in orbit can also deliver one across intercontinental distances, like the long-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the armouries of major world powers.

Western governments, especially America, are concerned that the Iranian nuclear programme is directed at producing weapons. In such a context, possession of ICBM-class rockets by Iran would be a further reason to worry. The US intelligence community last year issued a report saying that Iran had indeed been working on atomic arms until lately, while claiming that it was not. However, in the assessment of the American spooks the Iranian weapons programme is now genuinely on hold.

The White House comments on yesterday's rocket launch drew a response from Tehran.

"Given the firm commitment of Iran's foreign policy to the principles of peace, justice, respect for the rights of nations, and peaceful coexistence, there is no reason for anyone to worry," said government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham.

Iran does not recognise the nation of Israel, though, and President Ahmadinejad has publicly predicted that Israel will not exist forever. It is also widely believed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives and funding have long bolstered the Shi'ite militia Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, a constant thorn in the Israelis' side.

President Ahmadinejad insists that Iran is not a threat to any country. ®

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