The United States has assessed that Iran successfully launched a military satellite into orbit for the first time on Wednesday, according to two US Defense Department officials.
The move is seen as a significant step because the country’s space program utilizes the same technology that would be needed to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would increase Tehran’s capability to strike enemy targets.
US Space Command is tracking two objects in orbit that were launched from within Iran, according to one of the officials. One is a rocket body and the other is assessed to be the satellite. The rocket body may still be in orbit because the Iranian program is not sophisticated enough to have perfected re-entry into the atmosphere.
Earlier on Wednesday, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US was tracking the launch closely but declined to confirm the satellite had reached orbit.
Hyten said a successful launch would mean that Iran “has the ability, once again, to threaten their neighbors, our allies. And we want to make sure that they can never threaten the United States. So we watch that very carefully.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran needed “to be held accountable” for the launch, which he said violated a UN Security Council resolution.
On Wednesday morning President Donald Trump tweeted that he has instructed the US Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats” that harass US ships.
“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” Trump wrote.
The tweet was the latest provocative threat Trump has levied against Tehran amid scrutiny of his handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and raises fears about possibility of a miscalculation between the two longtime foes.
The tweet and satellite launch come after tensions escalated sharply in recent months. In January, the US killed Iran’s second most powerful official, Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Earlier this month, Trump, without citing any evidence, claimed that his administration had information that “Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq.” He warned of a “heavy price” to pay if such acts were carried out.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said earlier on Wednesday that the launch of the Noor Satellite had been successful. It was carried out in the central desert of Iran, according to a statement released by the IRGC. CNN has not been able to independently verify the success of the launch.
There have been several failed attempts to launch a similar satellite.
Iran has had a growing space launch vehicle program aimed at putting satellites with missiles atop them into space. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Tehran has conducted several successful launches of a two-stage program known as Safir, beginning in 2008. In July 2017 and January 2019, it launched a larger two-stage space launch booster rocket but failed to put a satellite into orbit.
CNN reported in August 2019 that an Iranian rocket exploded on the launch pad of Khomeini Space Center.
Iran has claimed it has successfully put communications and remote-sensing satellites into orbit, according to DIA, as well as small “microsatellites”.
CNN’s Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report.