x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Rocket up, tension down: mixed signals from Iran

Iran launches a home-made satellite-carrier rocket yesterday that hurled a rat, two turtles and a collection of worms into space.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils the satellite-carrier rocket in Tehran yesterday.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils the satellite-carrier rocket in Tehran yesterday.

Iran successfully launched a home-made satellite-carrier rocket yesterday that hurled a rat, two turtles and a collection of worms into space. The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, boasted that the Islamic republic would soon dispatch its own astronauts to orbit Earth. Hours earlier, he indicated that Tehran would, despite repeated earlier rejections, accept a vital confidence-building measure to defuse tensions over his country's nuclear programme.

The mixed signals from Tehran - of muscular technological prowess and a possibly U-turn on a long-standing United Nations-brokered uranium fuel exchange deal - come as the Iranian regime faces growing challenges at home and abroad. The Iranian opposition is preparing to stage huge, peaceful protest rallies on February 11, while the US is pressing hard for new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

Yesterday's display of Iran's rocket virility also follows reports that the United States is bolstering its defences in the Gulf against potential Iranian missile attacks. Western nations fear Iran's ambitious space programme technology could be diverted into developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Tehran denies any such intentions and insists its nuclear programme is solely aimed at the peaceful generation of electricity.

Iran proclaimed that its menagerie-bearing rocket, named the Kavoshgar-3 - Farsi for Explorer-3 - was the "first Iranian launch into orbit with a living thing". A beaming Mr Ahmadinejad trumpeted: "This was a huge breakthrough - Science is an arena - where we can defeat the [West's] domination." He also unveiled a new, domestically-built light booster rocket, named Simorgh (phoenix), as well as three home-built satellites to mark Iran's National Space Day.

But in a surprise move on Tuesday night, Mr Ahmadinejad said he had "no problem" with four month-old UN-brokered proposals to temporarily neuter any perceived threat from Iran's nuclear programme. Iran formally rejected the accord weeks ago after making a series of counter-offers that were rejected by the West because they would not stall Tehran's ability to build a weapon. The deal was initially brokered in October by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It requires Iran to send about 75 per cent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad in one batch for further refinement and conversion into fuel rods for use in an internationally-monitored medical research reactor in Tehran.

The accord would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, according to experts, buying time for a comprehensive settlement of the seven-year-old nuclear dispute. "We have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad," a relaxed-looking Mr Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Iranian state television. "We say: 'We will give you our 3.5 per cent enriched uranium and will get the fuel.' It may take four to five months until we get the fuel."

That time frame, however, falls short of the period of about a year that experts say is needed for Iran's 3.5 per cent LEU to be enriched to the 20 per cent level required for its medical reactor. Nor did the Iranian president specify whether Iran would export its LEU in one batch. This was another condition set by the so-called P5+1: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, China, Russia, Britain and France - and Germany.

There was suspicion in western capitals yesterday that Iran's intention was to play for time and sow discord over further sanctions at the UN Security Council. Western scepticism was pithily expressed by Germany, whose foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said: "Iran has to be measured by its actions, not by what it says." Washington said it was not prepared to renegotiate the uranium-swap accord, but if there was a genuine change of heart in Iran the US looked forward to Tehran informing the IAEA.

Russia said it would welcome Mr Ahmadinejad's move provided that it meant Iran accepted the deal outlined last October. The Iranian president had originally appeared to welcome the fuel exchange deal, possibly seeing it as a way to bolster his legitimacy abroad while his standing at home had plummeted because of his disputed re-election last June. But he swiftly backtracked after his rivals across the political spectrum attacked the deal, mostly to prevent him taking any credit for a diplomatic breakthrough that would improve relations with the US, which polls show would be popular with most Iranians.

Yesterday's rocket launch was timed to coincide with 10 days of celebrations marking the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, which climax on February 11. Exactly a year ago, Iran proclaimed it had burst into the global space race by using a home-made rocket to launch into orbit its first domestically-made satellite, the Omid (hope), for what it said were peaceful telecommunications and research purposes.

On Monday, a Pentagon report said Iran had expanded its ballistic missile capabilities and posed a significant threat to US and allied forces in the Middle East. In a counter-move, officials in Washington said the US was placing specialised ships with missile-targeting capabilities off Iran's coast, and anti-missile systems in at least four Gulf states - the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Iran on Tuesday scoffed that the new American deployments were a "puppet show", claiming that Washington's real aim was to boost US influence in the region. Iranian officials insisted Tehran has good relations with neighbouring countries and accused the US of creating "Iran-phobia" in the region.