TEHRAN, Iran - Iran sent its first domestically made satellite into orbit, the president announced Tuesday, a key step for an ambitious space program that worries the U.S. and other world powers because the same rocket technology used to launch satellites can also deliver warheads.
For nearly a decade, Iran has sought to develop a national space program, creating unease among international leaders already concerned about its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The telecommunications satellite - called Omid, or hope, in Farsi - was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.
A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed the launch and suggested the technology was not sophisticated. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence gathering, the official said it appeared it "isn't too far removed from Sputnik," the first Soviet orbiter launched in 1957.
The TV report praised the launch as part of festivities marking the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah and brought hard-line clerics to power.
In a year in which Ahmadinejad faces a tough election battle to stay in power, the launch provided a symbol of national pride to hold up even as falling oil prices batter the economy and the hard-line leader's popularity.
As it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, Iran touts such technological successes as signs it can advance despite U.S. and U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program.
The launch touched off concern in the United States, Europe and Israel about possible links between its satellite programs and its work with missiles and nuclear technology.
"There's almost always a link between satellite programs like this and military programs and there's almost always a link between satellites and nuclear weapons. It's the same delivery vehicle," said James Lewis, an expert on defense technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the launch, saying: "This action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region."
State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood accused Iran of using the space-launch program as a technological stepping stone to develop long-range ballistic missiles.
"Iran's ongoing efforts to develop its missile delivery capabilities remain a matter of deep concern," Wood said. "Iran's development of a space-launch vehicle capable of putting a satellite into orbit establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems."
Yiftah Shapir, a top Israeli expert on the Iranian space program, said the launch itself "doesn't really mean much to Israel, we knew about it before hand."
"The significance is in the technology itself. They are making progress and working on a program to spy on targets worldwide. But they are decades away from achieving that," said Shapir, who heads the military balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. Iran denies the charge, saying its atomic work is only for peaceful purposes, such as power generation.
The announcement of the launch came as officials from the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China were set to meet Wednesday near Frankfurt to talk about Iran's nuclear program. The group has offered Iran a package of incentives if it suspends uranium enrichment and enters into talks on its nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions to pressure Iran to comply.
"This test underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about Iran's intentions," Britain's Middle East minister Bill Rammell said Tuesday. "There are dual applications for satellite-launching technology in Iran's ballistic missile program."
Ahmadinejad insisted the launch was intended to be a message of peace and friendship to the world. "We need science for friendship, brotherhood and justice," he told state television.
The launch has clear political aims, said Lewis. "You can say, 'I am the dominant power in the region and here's the proof.' That's what a space launch does for you."
The satellite was taken into orbit by a Safir-2, or ambassador-2, rocket, which was first tested in August and has a range of 155 miles. Iranian television said the satellite would orbit at an altitude of between 155 and 250 miles.
State radio said it is designed to circle the Earth 15 times during a 24-hour period and send reports to the space center in Iran. It has two frequency bands and eight antennas for transmitting data.
Ahmadinejad said the satellite reached its orbit and had made contact with ground stations, though not all of its functions were active yet. He said Iran would now seek to increase the ability of its satellite-carrier rockets to carry more weight.
Iran's space plans are lofty and even hold out the goal of putting a man in orbit within 10 years, though accomplishing that would be extremely expensive.
A domestic satellite program would put Iran in a growing club - more than 80 countries are building or planning to build their own satellites, according to Lewis. But the ability to launch them is a much more exclusive crowd; only nine countries have done so.
In 2005, Iran launched its first commercial satellite on a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow, which is a partner in transferring space technology to Iran along with North Korea and China. That same year, the government said it had allocated $500 million for space projects in the next five years.
Iran has said it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation and improve its telecommunications. Iranian officials also point to America's use of satellites to monitor Afghanistan and Iraq and say they need similar abilities for their security.