|Map flag of Iran, SVG version of Image:Iran tricolour.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Iran said on Monday it had launched a live monkey into space, seeking to show off missile systems that have alarmed the West because the technology could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.
The Defense Ministry announced the launch as world powers sought to agree a date and venue with Iran for resuming talks to resolve a standoff with the West over Tehran's contested nuclear program before it degenerates into a new Middle East war.
Efforts to nail down a new meeting have failed repeatedly and the powers fear Iran is exploiting the diplomatic vacuum to hone the means to produce nuclear weapons.
The Islamic Republic denies seeking weapons capability and says it seeks only electricity from its uranium enrichment so it can export more of its considerable oil wealth.
The powers have proposed new talks in February, a spokesman for the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Monday, hours after Russia urged all concerned to "stop behaving like children" and commit to a meeting.
Iran earlier in the day denied media reports of a major explosion at one of its most sensitive, underground enrichment plants, describing them as Western propaganda designed to influence the nuclear talks.
The Defense Ministry said the space launch of the monkey coincided "with the days of" the Prophet Mohammad's birthday, which was last week, but gave no date, according to a statement carried by the official news agency IRNA.
The launch was "another giant step" in space technology and biological research "which is the monopoly of a few countries", the statement said.
The small grey monkey was pictured strapped into a padded seat and being loaded into the Kavoshgar rocket dubbed "Pishgam" (Pioneer) which state media said reached a height of more than 120 km (75 miles).
"This shipment returned safely to Earth with the anticipated speed along with the live organism," Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi told the semi-official Fars news agency. "The launch of Kavoshgar and its retrieval is the first step towards sending humans into space in the next phase."