TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian rocket failed to put a satellite into orbit on Sunday, state television reported, the latest setback for a program the US claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile program.
The launch happened at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran. A Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket could not put the Zafar 1 communications satellite into orbit, however, due to a low speed, Iranian state TV reported.
“Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit,” Defense Ministry space program spokesman Ahmad Hosseini told state TV.
Hosseini still sought to portray the failure as a “remarkable” achievement for its space program.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Likud election event, rubbed salt in the wound, saying: “We were notified today that Iran failed in launching a satellite. Alright. I’ll tell you what else they’re failing at: in transferring weapons to Syria and Lebanon, because we are operating there all the time, including at this time.”
There was some speculation in Hebrew media that the Israeli leader was alluding to possible Israeli involvement in the satellite’s failure, though there was no immediate information beyond Netanyahu’s vague comment to back up such an assertion.
In the days leading up to the launch, Iranian officials had been promoting the mission, including the country’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi. His quick rise through the Islamic Republic’s carefully managed political system already is generating speculation he could be a candidate for Iran’s 2021 presidential campaign.
The launch had been planned amid celebrations ahead of the February anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program, and its nuclear efforts during this season.
Sunday’s failure came after two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites last year, as well as a launchpad rocket explosion in August. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The rocket explosion in August drew even the attention of US President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The three failures in a row raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s program.
The US alleges such satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says it has not violated the UN resolution, as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
The launch comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US since Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. Iran since has begun breaking terms of the deal limiting its enrichment of uranium.
Meanwhile, a series of attacks across the Persian Gulf culminated with a US drone strike in Baghdad killing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory ballistic missile strike by Iran on Iraqi bases housing American troops earlier this month. Iran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner taking off from Tehran amid the tensions, killing all 176 people on board.