TEHRAN — The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran said on Wednesday that it had put a military satellite into orbit for the first time, a surprise launch that came amid wider tensions with the United States.
The launch of the satellite, which the Guard called “Noor,” or light, has not been independently confirmed. The State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The announcement raised concerns among experts about whether the technology used to launch the satellite could help Iran develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Iran has already abandoned all limitations on its tattered nuclear deal with world powers that President Trump unilaterally withdrew America from in 2018. Mr. Trump’s decision set off a monthslong series of escalating attacks that culminated in a U.S. drone strike in January that killed a top Iranian general in Iraq. Iran countered by firing ballistic missiles at American soldiers in Iraq.
For Iran, which is already dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, a struggling economy and historically low oil prices, the missile launch may signal a new willingness to take risks. At home, Iran, which was initially overwhelmed by the coronavirus, is seeking to sway international opinion on U.S. sanctions by highlighting its struggles with the coronavirus outbreak. In Iran, the regional epicenter of the outbreak, the virus has killed more than 5,290 people, from among over 84,800 reported cases.
“This raises a lot of red flags,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. “Iran doesn’t have that much to lose anymore,” he added, referring to the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign, a series of sanctions imposed against crucial industries and top officials.
On its official website, the Guards called it the first military satellite ever launched by Tehran and said the satellite had reached an orbit of 425 kilometers, about 265 miles, above the Earth’s surface.
The three-stage satellite launch took off from Iran’s Central Desert, the Guards said, without elaborating.
Mr. Hinz said, based on state media images, the launch appeared to have happened at a previously unnamed Guard base near Shahroud, Iran, about 200 miles northeast of Tehran. The base is in Semnan Province, the site of the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, from which Iran’s civilian space program operates.
The paramilitary force said it used a Ghased, or “Messenger,” satellite carrier to launch the device into space — a previously unheard-of system. it described as using both liquid and solid fuel.
“Today, the world’s powerful armies do not have a comprehensive defense plan without being in space, and achieving this superior technology that takes us into space and expands the realm of our abilities is a strategic achievement,” said Gen. Hossein Salami, the head of the Guards.
Wednesday is the 41st anniversary of the founding of the Guards by the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An image of the rocket that carried the satellite showed it bore a Quranic verse that is typically recited when going on a journey.
The Guards, which operate their own military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces, is a hard-line organization answerable only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It was not immediately clear whether Iran’s civilian government was told of the launch in advance. President Hassan Rouhani gave a nearly 40-minute speech on Wednesday before his cabinet and did not mention it.
That failure came after two other 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 killed three researchers, the authorities said at the time.
The rocket explosion in August drew the attention of Mr. Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The successive failures raised suspicion of outside interference, something Mr. Trump hinted at by tweeting at the time that the United States “was not involved in the catastrophic accident.”
The United States says that such satellite launches defy a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to steer clear of any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
American officials, as well as those in European nations, worry that the launches could help Iran develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Iran, which has maintained it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously said its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component, but the move by the Guards to launch their own satellite casts doubt on that stance.