In 2011, a huge explosion destroyed a major missile-testing site near Tehran, killing the military officer who oversaw the Iranian program. Initially, the Iranians described that as an accident, but they later linked it to an Israeli program to assassinate nuclear scientists. Israeli officials have since hinted they were involved.
That explosion destroyed buildings at a vast development site; the explosion on Thursday appeared more isolated, limited to the launchpad, which was shown smoldering in satellite photographs released by Planet Labs.
But it was Mr. Trump’s release of a satellite photograph that attracted the most discussion among intelligence officials. Several former officials noted that the upper left-hand corner, where the level of classification of the photograph would normally be denoted, was blacked out before Mr. Trump tweeted the image. That suggested a rushed effort by the United States to declassify it, presumably at Mr. Trump’s command. A glare on the photograph suggested someone may have used a cellphone to take a picture of the image as it was displayed on a tablet computer, which is how classified images are often shown to the president during security briefings.
“You can bet every adversary is going to school on what’s been exposed,” James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence, said in an email. “I can’t see what the point was, other than to make fun of the Iranians.”
Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the image posted by Mr. Trump looked “far better than any commercial imagery” that has been released about the launch. Revealing the abilities of American satellite surveillance, he argued, does not advance American interests.
“This tweet is an excellent example of Trump’s aimless, impulsive thinking about many national security issues,” Mr. Kimball said. “Why tweet that the United States was not involved when it may have been? Why, apparently sarcastically, wish them good luck in finding the cause for the accident?”
Commercial satellite images by Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies showed a thick plume of black smoke rising from the launching pad on Thursday, as well as what appeared to be the burned remains of the launching tower.