Israeli analysts are downplaying Iran’s claim that it successfully launched a rocket capable of carrying research satellites into orbit.
Experts interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, the rocket shown in Monday’s launch appeared to be an “ordinary” Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM). The first Iranian missile capable of striking targets in Israel, the Shahab-3 is only capable of lifting extremely small payloads—30 kilograms or less—into space. Even small research satellites typically weigh hundreds of kilos.
Tehran launched its first space booster last February; according to press and intelligence reports, the vehicle reached the edge of space, but did not go into orbit. Iranian officials did not disclose the altitude reached by the rocket launched yesterday, or the status of its payload.
Monday’s launch was part of a carefully-orchestrated effort to highly Tehran’s space program. Before the rocket’s liftoff, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially “opened” the space complex, which includes an underground control center and launch pad. Later, Ahmadeinejad issued the launch order for the rocket, which was painted white.
The Iranian leader also claimed that his country has developed its first domestically-produced satellite, called Omid or Hope. Tehran’s state-controlled TV said the Omid took 10 years to develop, and is scheduled for launch in the next 12 months. Iran has plans to launch four more satellites by 2010, ostensibly to improve access to phone and internet service.
Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at Israel’s Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Studies in Herzliya, gets credit for seeing through the Iranian smokescreen. As he reminded the Post, “space” programs are often used as cover for developing more powerful military missiles. Lifting heavy payloads into space requires multi-stage rockets, giving Iran a way around international restrictions on the development of two-stage ballistic missiles.
Indeed, there are no indications that Iran has solved the technological hurdles necessary for building (and placing) geosynchronous communications satellites in orbit, or developed low earth orbit (LEO) systems that could be used for cell traffic or paging. Beyond that, there’s the question of cost: even in a country the size of Iran, it would be cheaper—and faster—to lay more fiber optic cable and erect more cell towers, rather than build a fleet of LEO satellites.
On the other hand, a space program is the perfect cover for expanded missile development efforts. Along with the Shahab-3, Tehran is also working on longer-range systems, including the Shahab-4. While ostensibly described as a “space booster,” the Shahab-4 has military applications, and could deliver chemical, biological or nuclear warheads against targets throughout the Middle East.
And, by “mixing and matching” various missile stages, Iran could (sometime during the next decade) fashion a crude ICBM, capable of reaching the United States. It’s the same approach that has been used by North Korea, which is providing extensive technical support to the Iranian missile program. But unlike Pyongyang, Iran is not operating on a shoe-string budget. Flush with oil revenue, they can acquire more advanced Russian and Chinese technology, improving the reliability and accuracy of their missiles.
This is not to say that Tehran doesn’t have an interest in space. Iran has already launched a crude imaging satellite and hopes to orbit improved versions in the near future. Those platforms will give the Iranians the capability to obtain targeting data on potential adversaries, including U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf. Access to that information will lessen Tehran’s reliance on commercial satellites and platforms owned by other nations.
The timing of the Iranian ”space push” also illustrates their wider goals. As we’ve noted in the past, development of a nuclear weapons capability is actually a three-track process. Along with the weapon, aspiring nuclear powers must also have access to delivery systems and overhead targeting data. Feverish efforts in missile and satellite development offer one more indication that Iran’s nuclear program is far from dead; in reality, it’s continuing apace, and will yield a fully-developed capability in the coming years.
ADDENDUM: According to the Post, the Mossad now estimates that Iran will have “offensive nuclear capabilities” within three years–well ahead of the timeline forecast by the U.S. intelligence community.