Iran has acknowledged that a rocket explosion took place at its Imam Khomeini Space Centre following satellite images the showed the blast taking place last week.
The comments by government spokesman Ali Rabiei on Monday were the first explanation offered by Iran for Thursday’s explosion, which came before a planned satellite launch by Tehran that the United States had criticised.
The explosion marked the third failure involving a rocket at the Iranian centre, and was highlighted in a tweet by US President Donald Trump on Friday, raising suspicions of sabotage in Iran’s space programme.
However, Rabiei dismissed the suggestion, saying that “this has been a technical matter and a technical error”.
“The explosion happened at the launchpad and no satellite had yet been transferred to the launchpad,” Rabiei said. “It happened at a test site, not at the launch site.”
Commercially available satellite images by Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad on Thursday, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand.
In previous days, satellite images showed officials there repainted the launch pad blue.
‘America not involved’
Rabiei also denounced Trump for tweeting what appeared to be a surveillance photo of the aftermath of the explosion shot by a US spy satellite.
“We don’t understand why the US president tweets and posts satellite pictures with excitement. This is not understandable,” he said. “Maybe this is because lack of Iran-related subjects that they raise such issues.”
The photo tweeted on Friday by Trump appeared to be a once-classified surveillance photo from US intelligence agencies.
Analysts said the black rectangle in the photo’s upper left-hand corner likely covered up the its classification.
The image showed damaged vehicles around the launchpad, as well as damage done to the rocket’s launcher. It also clearly showed a large phrase written in Persian on the pad: “National Product, National Power.”
“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote in his tweet, identifying the rocket used. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
The US alleges Iranian satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Imperilled nuclear deal
Last week’s incident came after months of tensions between Tehran and Washington, unleashed by Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal brokered between Iran and several other world powers.
The deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – placed limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Trump reimposed crippling financial penalties on Iran after pulling out of the accord as part of a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign ostensibly aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate a new agreement.
The move has left the other signatories – Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China – struggling to come up with enough incentives to keep Iran in the deal.
Iran has scaled back its commitments under the pact in response to US sanctions, which have slashed Iran’s crude oil exports by more than 80 percent.