US President Donald Trump said he had “the absolute right” to tweet a photo of an apparent explosion at an Iranian space center.
Trump was asked Friday if he had released classified information by posting the photo on Twitter.
He said, “We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do.”
Asked where he got the photo, which included annotations pointing to damaged vehicles and the launch gantry, he told reporters, “You’ll have to figure that one out yourself.”
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
Other satellite images released Thursday appeared to show the smoldering remains of a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center that was to conduct a US-criticized satellite launch.
“They had a big problem,” Trump said of Iran’s launch.
He said Iran was “going to set off a big missile and it didn’t work out too well. Had nothing to do with us.”
Earlier this week, satellite photographs from Planet Labs had shown that a fresh coat of blue paint had been added to the launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Port, part of the Semnan Center, suggesting a launch was in preparation.
Photographs taken on Thursday showed the paint scorched off of half of the pad.
But the commercial photographs showed none of the detail that Trump’s did.
The image showed damaged vehicles around the launch pad, as well as damage done to the rocket’s launcher. It also clearly showed a large phrase written in Farsi on the pad: “National Product, National Power.”
Intelligence experts said Trump may have exposed a previously unknown level of resolution US spy satellites have achieved, or that, somehow, US intelligence was able to get a closer shot of the launch site from an overflying aircraft.
Shadows and glare on Trump’s picture suggested it was a snapshot of the original taken with a cellphone, presumably in a secure environment like the White House Situation Room, which has multiple video screens for intelligence briefings.
Analysts said the black rectangle in the photo’s upper-left-hand corner likely covered up the photo’s classification. Trump as president can declassify material.
CNBC reported that a defense official confirmed the photo of the launch pad was included in Friday’s White House intelligence briefing.
Allison Puccioni, an imagery specialist at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said on Twitter that such resolution is not available to people in the open-source, or public intelligence community.
“The dissemination of this image seems out-of-step with the US policy regarding its publication of such data. Not sure what the political objective of dissemination was,” she said.
Tehran has made no official comment on the indications from aerial photos that the rocket exploded on the launch pad in northern Iran.
While specifics about the incident remain unclear, it marked the third failure involving a launch at the center, which has raised suspicions of sabotage in Iran’s space program. The US has criticized the initiative as a way for Tehran to advance its ballistic missiles.
Iranian Minister for Communications and Information Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi rejected reports that a satellite had been lost, but did not comment on the alleged launch-pad explosion.
“Apparently there were reports that the third attempt to put the satellite in orbit were unsuccessful. In fact, Nahid 1 is alright, and is right now in the laboratory. Reporters can come visit the laboratory, too. #transparency,” he tweeted.
Azari Jahromi later posted a selfie of him in what appeared to be a laboratory alongside some equipment, tweeting: “Me & Nahid I right now, Good Morning Donald Trump!”
Me & Nahid I right now, Good Morning Donald Trump! pic.twitter.com/0tQnCP7cQa
— MJ Azari Jahromi (@azarijahromi) August 31, 2019
Washington keeps a close eye on Iranian space activities as an indicator of advances in its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.
The apparent failed rocket launch comes after two failed satellite launches of the Payam and Doosti in January and February. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
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 hasn’t violated the UN resolution as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.
The tests have taken on new importance to the US amid the maximalist approach to Iran taken by Trump’s administration. Tensions have been high between the countries since Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions, including on Iran’s oil industry. Iran recently has begun to break the accord itself while trying to push Europe to help it sell oil abroad.