TEHRAN - Iran said on Wednesday it had launched a Kavoshgar-3 rocket capable of carrying a satellite -- a move that may add to Western concern about Tehran's nuclear program.
President Mahmoud Ahmadineja said the launch was a huge breakthrough which would help break the global domineering system -- a reference to Iran's Western foes.
On Tuesday, he had struck a more conciliatory note, saying Iran was ready to send its enriched uranium abroad in what appeared to be an easing of its position in the nuclear dispute.
Western powers fear Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs and that the long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit can also be used to launch warheads. Iran says its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.
Speaking at a ceremony unveiling new satellite and space technology, Ahmadinejad said Iran hoped to send astronauts into space soon.
State Press TV showed a rocket blasting off from a desert launchpad leaving a thick vapor trail. The home-built Kavoshgar-3 (Explorer-3) satellite rocket carried living organisms, it said.
Another television channel showed what appeared to be a mouse, worms and two turtles. ISNA news agency said the capsule had successfully returned to earth with its passengers.
Mark Fitzpatrick at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said the launch was one of a series and not particularly more significant than others.
They contribute to Iran's ballistic missile capabilities, but do not foretell an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) capability or anything else capable of threatening Western Europe or the U.S. homeland, Fitzpatrick said.
Western counter-proliferation sources also said the Kavoshgar-3 was not a military system and was not a threat.
The rocket, propelled by liquid fuel, was a testing device for space systems that normally rises about 100 km (63 miles) above the surface of the earth before returning on a parachute.
In May 2009, a U.S.-Russia assessment estimated Iran is six to eight years away from producing a ballistic missile able to deliver a 1,000 kilogram nuclear warhead to a range of 2,000 km.
In December, Iran said it test-fired a long-range, upgraded Sejil 2 missile. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the time said the launch was of serious concern and underlined the case for tougher sanctions.
On Monday, a Pentagon report said Iran had expanded its ballistic missile capabilities and posed a significant threat to U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East region.
The Iranian president made no mention of the nuclear row at the aerospace event.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to send its enriched uranium abroad in exchange for nuclear fuel. He appeared for the first time to drop Tehran's long-standing conditions on a deal with global powers.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Turkey on Wednesday, said Tehran was considering the swap option.
The swap formula is a more confidence-inspiring formula compared to other formulas. For that reason, we have to keep that formula on the table, he told a news conference in Ankara.
Iran was in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russia, France and the United States in Vienna, he said.
I believe the discussions would help find a formula.
The United States said that if Iran was serious it should tell the IAEA. Russia said it would welcome an Iranian decision on enrichment.
Analysts believe that because of the threat of sanctions, Iran is trying to buy time to evade more domestic pressure. Ahmadinejad has been in favor of the deal because he wanted to win some legitimacy following last year's disputed presidential elections that have triggered anti-government protests.
Ahmadinejad wanted a deal, wanted a some sort of agreement with the international community, especially with the United States, because it is clear he thought he would be able to use a foreign policy success to enhance his domestic standing, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Austrian broadcaster ORF.
The deal is not struck just because the president says Iran is ready for a deal...This is simply a sign that Iran is ready to come back to the negotiating table.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that foreign governments were moving toward consensus on imposing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and by Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Angus MacSwan)