U.S. Officials Not Worried By Iran Rocket Launch

When Iran launched a satellite into low-earth orbit this week, it was taken by many in the West as a not-so-subtle reminder that the country is defiantly working to produce missiles that one day could be used to deliver nuclear warheads. Yet officials at U.S. national security agencies, who carefully monitored the launch, tell NEWSWEEK that despite Iran's bravado, the country's rocket technology still appears to be fairly crude.

One U.S. counter-proliferation official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, described the two-stage Safir-2 rocket (which lofted a satellite nicknamed Omid, or "Hope") was "not sophisticated." The official said that reports reaching the U.S. government indicate the technology was around 50 years old, the equivalent of the rocket that put the Soviet "Sputnik" satellite into low-earth orbit in 1957.

The launch was a "largely symbolic" gesture by Iran's theocratic regime, the official said. A U.S. defense official said the Iranians attempted a similar mission last August. That mission reportedly failed when the rocket, carrying a dummy payload, apparently failed to reach orbit.

This week's launch was a success—the rocket reached orbit and the satellite was deployed. Nonetheless, U.S. officials do not believe the satellite would be able to maintain orbit for very long before falling to earth. "Alarm bells are not ringing from coast to coast," the counter-proliferation official said.

They were, however, ringing in the White House press room. Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama's press secretary, scolded Iran for the launch, saying "this action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region." Gibbs added, "The president is clear that he wants Iran to be a responsible member of the world community."

Some military officials also took a hard public line. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which under the Bush administration began to deploy a rudimentary U.S. missile-defense system to protect against rogue states like Iran and North Korea, said those who played down the significance of last week's Iranian launch are "missing the point ... If Iran can successfully combine rocket motor staging, accurate guidance and control, reliable propellant and precise payload deployment, then they have made a technological leap forward on the way to an operational ICBM. That is the concern," Lehner e-mailed NEWSWEEK. (In campaign statements and on the White House Web site, the Obama camp has signaled skepticism toward the Pentagon's anti-missile system.)

Yet Obama and his advisors have been careful not to go too far in condemning Tehran. The president has indicated a willingness to engage the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a broad dialogue to improve relations, a sharp shift in policy from the Bush administration, which demanded that Iran abandon its nuclear development program as a condition for talks. Last month "The Cable," a blog on U.S. diplomacy recently launched by Foreign Policy magazine (which, like NEWSWEEK, is owned by the Washington Post Co.) reported that over the past year, William Perry, a Clinton-era defense secretary, and other U.S. nuclear proliferation specialists quietly held a series of meetings in European cities with Iranian officials.

But for the moment the Obama administration does not appear to be rushing to try to re-establish relations with Iran. Foreign-policy officials said that the new president and his foreign-policy team, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are inclined to hold off serious talks until after the Iranians hold their own presidential elections this spring.