US slaps sanctions on Iran space agency over suspected missile work
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US slaps sanctions on Iran space agency over suspected missile work

Washington accuses Tehran’s space program of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian-led effort to launch satellites into orbit

This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc., that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows a fire at a rocket launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province, August 29, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)
This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc., that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows a fire at a rocket launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province, August 29, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration imposed sanctions Tuesday on Iran’s space agency for the first time, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program to launch satellites into orbit.

The sanctions announced by the State and Treasury departments targeting the agency and two of its affiliates follow the explosion Thursday of a rocket at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center in what an Iranian official said was a technical malfunction during a test. The explosion prompted President Donald Trump to tweet a surveillance image depicting the apparent aftermath of the incident and declare that the US had nothing to do with what transpired at the launch site.

With the latest sanctions, the Trump administration can subject foreign companies and governments, including international space cooperation organizations, to significant penalties if they have any involvement with the Iranian space agency. They would also freeze any of the agency’s assets in US jurisdictions, though there aren’t likely to be any given the state of relations between the two nations.

A senior administration official said the sanctions were intended to send a clear signal that foreign entities could be cut off from the US financial system through secondary sanctions if they worked with any of the three institutions. The official was not authorized to discuss the sanctions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

This image taken from the Twitter account of US President Donald Trump, shows what appears to be a US intelligence photo of the aftermath of an explosion at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center on August 29, 2019, with the smoldering remains of a rocket on a launch pad at the center. (Twitter via AP)

The official said the move was not directly related to last week’s explosion but that the surveillance image provided evidence of the U.S. assertion that the Iranian space program is used to develop missiles, including ones capable of carrying nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction over long distances.

The sanctions are part of the Trump administration’s escalating campaign of economic and diplomatic measures against Iran since unilaterally withdrawing last year from an international accord that was intended to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran insists it is developing rockets to launch satellites into space, which it has done twice since 2013. The explosion marked the third failure involving a rocket at the Iranian center, which has raised suspicions of sabotage in Iran’s space program.

Iran government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Monday the explosion was “a technical matter and a technical error.”

Commercially available satellite images by Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad Thursday, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand. In previous days, satellite images had shown officials there had repainted the launch pad blue.

This picture, released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry on July 27, 2017, claims to show the Simorgh satellite-carrying rocket at Imam Khomeini National Space Center, Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

The blast followed failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites in January and February. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

Iran is preparing to launch the Nahid-1, a communication satellite, 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.

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