"I say this with certainty that the monkey is in good health and the space flight didn't have any physical effect on Pishgam," Ebrahimi said. "Some of the photos released by one of news agencies were not related to the time of flight. They were archive photos of the monkeys being prepared for the launch."
Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity, also said this week's monkey space flight was real, but he had a slightly different explanation for the photo mix-up. He claimed the light gray monkey with the mole died during a failed space mission in 2011.
"The monkey with the mole was the one launched in 2011 that died. The rocket failed. It did not get into space," McDowell said. "They just mixed that footage with the footage of the 2013 successful launch."
Iran has never confirmed that a monkey died in 2011, or that there was a failed mission that year.
If Iran was trying to fool the world with a doctored photo, it wouldn't be the first time. In 2008, Agence France-Presse released a photo, issued by Iran, of a salvo of four missiles being test-launched by the Revolutionary Guard. But sharp-eyed newshounds noticed that two of the rockets and their exhaust trails looked suspiciously similar. Upon further inspection – and when another photo of the same event came to light – it became clear that Iran had added an extra rocket and exhaust to cover up an apparently failed launch.