London, Feb. 2: Iran has, it seems, been engaging in what might charitably be described as "monkey business".
Last Monday, the Islamic Republic enjoyed what appeared to be a rare triumph ' the successful launch of a monkey into space.
The regime proclaimed it as proof that Iranian scientists could match their Western counterparts, evidence that international sanctions were ineffectual and of a stepping stone to a manned flight. The West fretted that the technology could be used to carry nuclear warheads.
However, the launch may not have taken place at all.
Beforehand, the official Fars news agency published images of the monkey wearing a space suit and strapped into the seat that would carry it skywards. The creature had a distinctive red mole above its right eye and a band of light fur around the side of its head.
Fast forward to a news conference three days after the alleged launch at which the regime introduced the heroic astro-monkey. The mole has gone, as has the band of light fur. It is manifestly a different monkey.
There are two possible explanations. One is the original monkey died during the flight and the regime was too embarrassed to admit it. Iran has never confessed to a failed attempt to launch a monkey into space in 2011.
The second explanation is that the launch never happened at all.
A senior Iranian space official offered a third explanation. One of the two official photos depicted the wrong monkey, Mohammad Ebrahimi told AP today.
The primate did fly up into orbit and return safely, Ebrahimi said. The wrong photo was of a backup monkey, he said.
Michael Elleman, an Iranian missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: "There's been no independent confirmation from outside Iran that the launch did take place, and that the payload contained a monkey, and that the monkey survived."
The Iranians themselves have offered no incontrovertible evidence. In the hours after the capsule allegedly returned to Earth, the regime published only a few still photographs of the rocket and the monkey with the mole ' but not the two together. Later, it issued a couple of videos showing a rocket being launched, of a capsule being retrieved in a desert and of the second monkey strapped in a chair. But they could easily have been fabricated.
More broadly, the regime continues to insist its elections are the freest in the world, it holds no political prisoners and that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.
The Times, London