An Iranian rocket launch in 2009. Iran claims to have launched a monkey into space on board a Kavoshgar rocket (Photo: Reuters)
Iran on Monday successfully sent a monkey into orbit, paving the way for a manned space flight, Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi told state television.
Arabic-language channel Al-Alam and other Iranian news agencies said the monkey returned alive after travelling in a capsule to an altitude of 120 kilometres (75 miles) for a sub-orbital flight.
"This success is the first step towards man conquering the space and it paves the way for other moves," General Vahidi said, but added that the process of putting a human into space would be a lengthy one.
"Today's successful launch follows previous successes we had in launching (space) probes with other living creatures (on board)," he added.
"The monkey which was sent in this launch landed safely and alive and this is a big step for our experts and scientists."
Iranian state television showed still pictures of the capsule and of a monkey being fitted with a vest and then placed in a device similar to a child's car-seat.
A previous attempt in 2011 by the Islamic republic to put a monkey into space failed. No official explanation was ever given.
A defence ministry statement quoted by Iranian media said earlier Iran had "successfully launched a capsule, codenamed Pishgam (Pioneer), containing a monkey and recovered the shipment on the ground intact".
Iran announced in mid-January its intention to launch a monkey into orbit as part of "preparations for sending a man into space," which is scheduled for 2020.
Iran's space programme deeply unsettles Western nations, which fear it could be used to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads they suspect are being developed in secret.
The same technology used in space launch rockets can also be used in ballistic missiles.
The Security Council has imposed on Iran an almost total embargo on nuclear and space technologies since 2007.
Tehran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear and scientific programmes mask military ambitions.
Iran's previous satellite launches were met by condemnation from the West who accused Tehran of "provocation."
The Islamic republic has previously sent a rat, turtles and worms into space. It has also successfully launched three satellites -- Omid in February 2009, Rassad in June 2011 and Navid in February 2012.
In mid-May last year, Tehran announced plans to launch an experimental observation satellite Fajr (Dawn) within a week but it did not happen and Iran gave no explanation for the delay.
The Fajr satellite was presented by Iranian officials as "an observation and measurement" satellite weighing 50 kilos (110 pounds), built by Sa-Iran, a company affiliated to the defence ministry.