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Tue 5 Feb 2008 02:52 AM

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Iran riles US with rocket launch

Missile display triggers condemnation from US as republic marks opening of first space centre.

Iran on Monday fired a rocket into space to mark the opening of its first space centre, triggering swift condemnation from the US amid continued tensions over the Iranian nuclear drive.

The space centre, located in the remote desert of western Iran, will be used to launch Iran's first home-produced satellite "Omid" (Hope) in May or June this year, officials said.

"We witness today that Iran has taken its first step in space very firmly, precisely and with awareness," declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he gave the order for the rocket's launch.

"The evil and dominant system's most important instrument is humiliating people and nations by making them think that they are incapable," he said.

The US, which has led international efforts to pressure Iran to freeze controversial nuclear activities, said Tehran's activities in space risked further isolating the Islamic republic.

"I saw this morning that Iran, again, tested a ballistic missile. It's unfortunate that they continue to do that because it further isolates the country from the rest of the world," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

The rocket launch is believed to be the second time Iran has tried to put an object into space after it claimed to have successfully fired a missile outside the atmosphere in February 2007.

State television broadcast pictures of the launch of the rocket, which is dubbed Kavoshgar-1 but bore a close resemblance to Iran's longer-range missile Shahab-3.

The Shahab-3 has a range of 1,300 to 1,600 kilometres (800 to 1,000 miles), enough to put Tehran's arch regional foe Israel and US bases in the Gulf within reach.

The new space centre includes an underground control centre and launchpad which will be used to fire Omid into space, followed by other planned satellites in the future, state media said.

The opening of the space centre comes as Iran has been trumpeting its progress in its nuclear programme, which the West fears could be used to make atomic weapons.

Ahmadinejad has made Iran's scientific development one of the main themes of his presidency, asserting that the country has reached a peak of progress and no longer needs to depend on foreign states for help.

"No power can overcome the Iranian nation's will," he said.

"The world must know that the Iranian nation will preserve the principles and ideals of the Imam (revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) until the end."

State television made great play of the space centre opening, which comes amid celebrations for the 29th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. It repeatedly showed footage of the launch and played patriotic music.

Iran has been pursuing a space programme for several years, and in October 2005 a Russian-made Iranian satellite was put into orbit by a Russian rocket.

But Omid would be Iran's first domestically manufactured probe and the first to be launched from Iranian territory.

The rocket blasted off after a countdown to cries of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Greatest), from the space centre in a desert region in the northern Semnan province, state television showed.

The pictures showed the rocket heading towards space but no information was given on what height it reached. A small probe was seen falling back to earth under a parachute but it was not clear what this contained.

State media said the rocket was a sounding probe sent to conduct experiments to pave the way for the launch of the Omid satellite.

Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency that the satellite would be launched in the Iranian month of Khordad, which begins on May 21.

The Russian-launched satellite Sina-1 was Iran's first - and so far only - probe to be launched into space, and was described by the Iranian press at the time as being for research and telecommunications.

Iran has said it plans to construct and launch several more satellites over the next three years.

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