Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Iran satellite launch is symbolic step: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iran's launch of its first satellite added new fuel to U.S. concerns over its nuclear ambitions, but a security official said on Tuesday the move did not by itself alter the strategic balance.
Iran announced the launch a day before world powers discuss strategy over Iran -- one of the top U.S. foreign policy issues in the early days of President Barack Obama's administration.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would show openness to Iran -- a change from a hard-line isolation policy under former President George W. Bush -- but urged it to respond in kind.
"We are reaching out a hand, but the fist has to unclench," Clinton said at a news briefing with Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Clinton said senior U.S. diplomat Bill Burns would join officials from other major powers in Germany on Wednesday to discuss an international strategy for curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran said it had launched into orbit for the first time a domestically made Omid (Hope) research and telecommunications satellite. The launch was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah.
Iran's satellite technology may also be used in the development of ballistic missiles, the U.S. Defense Department said. Such missiles could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon over large distances.
The United States suspects Iran of developing nuclear weapons, although Iran has long said its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy purposes.
"This development today is cause for concern not just here in the United States but in Europe, throughout the Middle East and I believe throughout the greater world," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters. "They (Iran) pose a real threat and it is a growing threat."
State Department spokesman Robert Wood described U.S. concern as "grave." Britain also expressed concern over the launch.
A U.S. national security official said, however, the satellite technology deployed in the launch "is probably not state-of-the-art."
"But for the Iranians this is an important symbolic step forward," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It is unclear what Iran intends to use the satellite for, and the United States is still trying to learn more about it, the official said.
But asked if the launch could have a strategic or tactical impact on the region, he said, "this particular satellite launch does not appear to be a game changer at all."
He said the satellite was in a low orbit and noted that some satellites last only a short time aloft. "This one may fit into that category," he said.