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Iran launches satellite that is part of a Western-criticized program as regional tensions spike

This is a locator map for Iran with its capital, Tehran. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Iran said Saturday it had conducted a successful satellite launch into its highest orbit yet, the latest for a program the West fears improves Tehran’s ballistic missiles.

The announcement comes as heightened tensions grip the wider Middle East over Israel's continued war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and just days after Iran and Pakistan engaged in tit-for-tat airstrikes in each others' countries.

Meanwhile Saturday, the U.S. conducted new strikes on Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been targeting shipping in the Red Sea over the war, and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq struck a base housing U.S. troops, wounding several personnel.

The Iranian Soraya satellite was placed in an orbit at some 750 kilometers (460 miles) above the Earth's surface with its three-stage Qaem 100 rocket, the state-run IRNA news agency said. It did not immediately acknowledge what the satellite did, though telecommunications minister Isa Zarepour described the launch as having a 50-kilogram (110-pound) payload.

The launch was part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' space program alongside Iran's civilian space program, the report said.

Footage released by Iranian media showed the rocket blast off from a mobile launcher, a religious verse referring to Shiite Islam's 12th hidden imam written on its side.

An Associated Press analysis of the footage suggested the launch happened at the Guard's launch pad on the outskirts of the city of Shahroud, some 350 kilometers (215 miles) east of the capital, Tehran. Iran's three latest successful satellite launches have all happened at the site.

There was no independent confirmation Iran had successfully put the satellite in orbit. The U.S. military and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The United States has previously said Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to undertake no activity involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program expired last October.

Under Iran's relatively moderate former President Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic slowed its space program for fear of raising tensions with the West. Hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who came to power in 2021, has pushed the program forward.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2023 worldwide threat assessment said the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. Iran is now producing uranium close to weapons-grade levels after the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers. Tehran has enough enriched uranium for “several” nuclear weapons, if it chooses to produce them, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly has warned.

Iran has always denied seeking nuclear weapons and says its space program, like its nuclear activities, is for purely civilian purposes. However, U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA say Iran had an organized military nuclear program up until 2003.

The involvement of the Guard in the launches, as well as it being able to launch the rocket from a mobile launcher, raise concerns for the West. The Guard, which answers only to Khamenei, revealed its space program back in 2020.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket.

A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 killed three researchers, authorities said at the time. A launchpad rocket explosion later that year drew the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who taunted Iran with a tweet showing what appeared to be a U.S. surveillance photo of the site.

In December, Iran sent a capsule into orbit capable of carrying animals as it prepares for human missions in the coming years.

Meanwhile Saturday, the U.S. military's Central Command said it “conducted airstrikes against a Houthi anti-ship missile that was aimed into the Gulf of Aden and was prepared to launch.”

“U.S. forces determined the missile presented a threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region, and subsequently struck and destroyed the missile in self-defense,” a Central Command statement said. “This action will make international waters safer and more secure for U.S. Navy and merchant vessels.”

The Iranian-backed Houthis did not immediately acknowledge this seventh round of strikes. The rebels have been targeting shipping since November in what they describe as an effort to stop the Israel-Hamas war. However, their targets have increasingly tenuous — or no — ties to Israel or the conflict.

In Iraq, a coalition of militias calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq announced it had launched a missile salvo Saturday at al-Asad airbase in the west of the country that is used by the U.S. military, the latest in a series of attacks by the group on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

The Central Command confirmed the attack, saying “Iranian-backed militants fired several shells and ballistic missiles” at the base. It said the base's defense systems “intercepted most of the missiles, while others fell on the base.”

The command's statement said an unspecified number of U.S. personnel had head injuries and at least one Iraqi military service member was also injured.

An Iraqi military official said 12 missiles were fired at the base, of which four were shot down and eight fell within the base. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the details with journalists.

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Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, and Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.