ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- A gray-tufted monkey strapped in a pod resembling an infant's car seat rode an Iranian rocket into space and returned safely, officials said Monday in what was described as a step toward Tehran's goal of a manned space flight.
The mission also touched on concerns that advances in Iran's rocket expertise could be channeled into military use for long-range weapons that might one day carry nuclear warheads. Iran says it does not seek atomic weapons.
Launching a live animal into space -- as the U.S. and the Soviet Union did more than a half-century ago in the infancy of their programs -- may boost a country's stature. But John Logsden, a space policy professor emeritus at George Washington University, said Iran's achievement should draw no concern.
"A slight monkey on a suborbital flight is nothing to get too excited about," he said. "They already had the capability to launch warheads in their region."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. had no way to confirm the monkey's voyage, but that it was concerned by the reports because "any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles."
The U.N. Security Council has expressly forbidden Iran from such ballistic missile activity, Nuland added.
In June 2010, the Security Council banned Iran from pursuing "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
With its ambitious aerospace program, Iran has said it wants to become a technological leader for the Islamic world.
It's not the first time Iran has announced it had rocketed a live creature out of the Earth's atmosphere. The country sent a mouse, a turtle and some worms into space in 2010, officials said.
But the purported successful voyage of the small monkey, shown wearing a protective vest, put Iran among just a handful of nations that have sent a primate into space in a mission seen as a precursor of human spaceflight. No name was given for the monkey.
Earlier this month, the director of Iran's space agency, Hamid Fazeli, said Iran wanted to launch its first manned space mission in as soon as five years -- a goal that stretches back to the shah's fascination with NASA years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Iran is on its way to send a man into space," said Iran's Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi in comments posted on the ministry's website.
He added that the capsule "returned to Earth safely at the expected speed, together with the monkey inside," without giving further details.
According to state TV, the rocket dubbed "Pishgam," or "Pioneer" in Farsi, reached a height of 120 kilometers (72 miles), pushing into the threshold of space.
Iran's state TV broadcast its first video pictures showing Iranian scientists fixing the seated monkey into the rocket before the launch. It did not give any details on the timing or location of the launch.
Still images also showed the monkey wearing a type of molded body protection and being strapped tightly into a red plastic seat. The monkey was shown immobilized with straps and his face poked through a purple shield that covered his head and upper body.
Fazel said the monkey parachuted safely with the remaining last stage of the rocket. The TV also showed experts walking to the site in the middle of a desert where the monkey landed.
Fazel told the state TV that Iran will launch a bigger rocket together with a larger animal to obtain greater safety assurances before sending a man into space.
For Iran, its aerospace program is a source of national pride at a time of slumping economic fortunes from Western sanctions. It's also one of the pillars of Iran's aspirations to be seen as the technological hub for Islamic and developing countries.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and others repeatedly describe scientific progress -- including Iran's uranium enrichment labs -- as a patriotic duty in response to Western economic and diplomatic pressures.
Iran's rocket technology alarms the West as giving it intercontinental reach for a possible arsenal. Already, conventional Iranian missiles are capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.
Iran insists it only seeks nuclear reactors for energy and medical applications. But authorities also say there can be no retreat from homegrown technological development in all fields -- from peaceful nuclear research to military surveillance drones.
Tehran has announced several successful launches of satellites, dating back to 2005 in a joint project with Russia.