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Trump says US wasn’t involved in apparent launch pad explosion in Iran

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President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing the White House en route West Virginia in Washington, July 24, 2019.

Mary F. Calvert | Reuters

VIENNA — President Donald Trump on Friday insisted that the U.S. had nothing to do with the apparent launch pad explosion of an Iranian rocket.

Trump’s denial also included what looked to be an aerial photograph of the launch site, complete with graphics and annotations describing the scene.

A U.S. defense official told CNBC that the picture in Trump’s tweet, which appeared to be a snapshot of a physical copy of the satellite image, was included in a Friday intelligence briefing.

Experts told CNBC that the shot was likely never meant for public view.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump said in a tweet Friday afternoon.

“I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One,” he added.

Speaking to reporters before departing the White House Friday, Trump said he had the right to release the photo.

Trump’s comments on Twitter came on the heels of what appeared to be a failed rocket launch at a space center in northern Iran a day earlier.

It wasn’t clear whom the president was responding to, or whether the U.S. had otherwise been accused of having a hand in the seeming blow-up at the launch site. Neither the White House nor the Pentagon immediately provided a response to CNBC’s inquiries.

“I think it is extremely unlikely that the U.S. had anything to do with the explosion. And it’s a monumentally bad idea to hint that we might have,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

The Iranian satellite launch sparked concerns that Tehran was testing technology that is virtually identical to that used in intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Tehran maintains that such activity is not a cover for ballistic missile development.

But the quality of the photograph quickly raised the eyebrows of national security experts, who say that images this clear are rarely made public.

“I’m not supposed to see stuff this good. He’s not supposed to share it. I’ve honestly never seen an image this sharp,” said Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network and director of the Datayo Project at the One Earth Future Foundation.

Hanham suspected the shot was taken from a high-altitude aerial vehicle using tracking technology, such as an RC-135S Cobra Ball or a similar aircraft.

“This will have global repercussions,” said Joshua Pollack, a nuclear proliferation expert and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.

“The utter carelessness of it all,” Pollack said. “So reckless.”

— CNBC’s Amanda Macias reported from Vienna. CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger contributed reporting from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

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