WASHINGTON — Iran said Wednesday that it successfully launched the nation's first military satellite, another move in the heightened tit-for-tat fight between Washington and Tehran over the regime's missile programs.
The satellite, dubbed Noor, was sent into orbit using a long-range rocket, according to a statement by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
U.S. officials have long feared that Iran's pursuit of developing satellite technology is a cover for ballistic missile activity. Tehran, meanwhile, has denied those assertions and has said that Iran is not working toward a nuclear weapons program.
"We want to make sure that they can never threaten the United States," U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon when asked about the satellite launch.
Hyten, who previously oversaw the nation's nuclear weapons portfolio as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said he could not confirm if the Iranian satellite was successfully launched into orbit, noting that it takes time and tracking to determine the outcome.
He added that the launch was another example of Iran's malign behavior and comes a week after Iranian fast boats harassed U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf.
"We're trying to create a safe environment for maritime transit in that part of the world. That's what the force over there is to do, and the malign behavior of Iran that questions that causes significant risks to the safety and security of that region of the world and therefore the world as a whole," Hyten said of the incident.
President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday that the United States would destroy Iranian gunboats that harass American ships at sea.
The threat, which contributed to a recovery in oil prices, came days after the Pentagon claimed that nearly a dozen ships from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy took "dangerous and provocative" actions near U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf.
"I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea," the president wrote in a post on Twitter.
West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, rose more than than 30% on Wednesday after slumping to historic lows this year as the coronavirus pandemic crushed demand. Iran produced 3% of the world's oil last year.
Tehran's latest move heightened tensions with Washington.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have soared after Trump's withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.
The 2015 nuclear agreement lifted sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program and allowed international inspectors into its facilities.
And while Trump's "maximum pressure" policy has crippled Iran's economy, slashing its oil exports, Tehran has said it will not negotiate with Washington while sanctions are in place.
The relationship took another perilous turn earlier this year when the U.S. conducted a deadly strike on Iran's top military commander. The Jan. 2 strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a key figure in Iranian and Middle East politics, followed a string of attacks on locations that hosted U.S. and coalition forces, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
On the heels of Soleimani's death, Iran launched at least a dozen missiles from its territory on Jan. 7 at two military bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops and coalition forces.
A day later from the White House, Trump said that Iran appeared "to be standing down" and warned Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
"As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," Trump said speaking from the grand foyer of the White House.
But he suggested that the U.S. is open to negotiations with Tehran. "We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place," he said on Jan. 8. He then urged other world powers to break away from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran and work out a new deal.
The tit-for-tat strikes follow what the U.S. called an Iranian attack on the world's largest crude-processing plant and oil field.
Last summer, the U.S. blamed Iran for the predawn strikes in Saudi Arabia that forced the kingdom to shut down half its production operations. The event triggered the largest spike in crude prices in decades and renewed concerns of a budding conflict in the Middle East. Iran maintains that it was not behind the attacks.
In September, Saudi Arabia's Defense Ministry said drone and missile debris recovered by investigators shows Iranian culpability.
Saudi coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki said during a press briefing in Riyadh that all military components retrieved from the oil facilities "point to Iran."