U.S. official raises Iran rocket fears; Tehran denies tests are illegal

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Iran rocket launch 'any minute'?
00:45 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

A rocket launch would help Iran further develop its ballistic missile technology

The country test-fired two ballistic missiles last week

Launches took place during a large-scale military drill

CNN  — 

A U.S. official has told CNN that Iran has the ability to launch a three-stage rocket with a satellite on top “at any minute.”

It would be Iran’s first ever launch of this configuration, and like the North Korean test earlier this year, would give Iran further insights into intercontinental ballistic missile technology.

The assessment followed reports in Iran’s state media that it had test-fired two ballistic missiles last Wednesday. The day before that, Iran conducted other missile tests that Washington suggested were in violation of a U.N. resolution adopted last year in the wake of an historic agreement by Tehran to curtail its nuclear program.

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However Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Tehran was within its rights to carry out tests it claimed were for defensive purposes. Speaking to reporters in Canberra, Australia Tuesday, Zarif said the resolution covered missiles capable of carrying “nuclear warheads.”

“Since we do not have nuclear warheads and we have undertaken not to develop them, and the international community has put in place the best mechanisms money can buy in order to make sure that we do not develop nuclear weapons… we do not design any missiles to carry things we do not have. So these missiles do not fall within the purview of (resolution) 2231 and they are not illegal,” he said.

The tests were criticized by both the U.N. Security Council, which held a closed meeting late Monday to discuss Iran’s actions, and the European Union. But EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the tests were not in violation of its nuclear deal and that the European Union was not considering sanctions at this stage, according to Agence France-Presse. However she said Iran’s actions could raise tensions in an already volatile region.

U.S., other nations condemn North Korean launch of long-range rocket

Israel in range

The missiles, capable of reaching Iran’s archenemy Israel, were marked with a statement in Hebrew reading “Israel must be wiped off the Earth,” Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

The phrase originates from a remark made by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution. CNN has not independently confirmed this report, and Iranian media have not shown photographs of the message.

The firings took place on the second and final day of a large-scale military drill, which marked the first time Tehran has fired ballistic missiles since signing a deal with world powers on its nuclear program in July.

U.S. officials said that the first tests did not violate the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but were very likely in breach of a U.N. resolution calling on Iran not to undertake ballistic missile activity.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported Tuesday that the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps had said that the drill had Iran’s enemies “shivering from the roar” of the missiles.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that since Israel – referred to as the “Zionist regime” – was within range of the missiles, it was “quite natural” it would be concerned, IRNA reported.

U.S. ‘will act’

Speaking in Jerusalem last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden assured Israel that if Iran broke the terms of the nuclear deal, “we will act.”

“We are united in the belief that a nuclear-armed Iran is an absolutely unacceptable threat to Israel, the region and the United States,” he said after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran.

In a possible reference to Iran’s latest missile tests, Biden said: “All their conventional activity outside the deal, which is still beyond the deal, we will and are attempting to act wherever we can find it.”

In January, the U.S. Treasury Department levied sanctions against 11 entities and individuals it said were working on behalf of the ballistic missile program.

Iran’s development of the technology has raised concerns that it could equip the missiles with nuclear warheads, which Tehran insists it does not possess.

CNN’s Paul Armstrong, Tim Hume and Alireza Hajihosseini contributed to this report.