Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shooting for the Stars--Or Something Else

In early February, Iran announced the opening of its so-called space center, and followed that event with a missile launch. Tehran described the rocket as a space launch vehicle, a claim that was unsubstantiated by video shown on state-run television. As we reported at the time:

Experts interviewed by the Jerusalem Post said 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.


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.

Two months later, other experts have reached the same conclusion. In his weekly "Inside the Ring," column, defense reporter Bill Gertz of the Washington Times notes a recent a recent assessment from Jane's Intelligence Review:

The authoritative British magazine provided an analysis of the launch, based on commercial satellite photographs and Iranian TV footage. The analysis reveals that, contrary to Iranian government claims, the new missile is a single-stage version of the Shahab-3 medium-range missile.

"Tehran has said the February 4th test was the first step toward launching a satellite," the Jane's analysis stated in the April edition. "However, the test appears to be part of the ongoing Shahab program, with no significant improvement in Iran's ballistic missile, and therefore space, program."

"Nonetheless, the Kavoshgar launch site or space center suggests that Iran is seeking to significantly develop its satellite, and hence ballistic missile, program by following a similar path to North Korea's Taepodong-1 missile program.

A defense department official also told Mr. Gertz that the missile tested in February appears to be a Shahab-3.

The confirmation comes as little surprise to analysts who have followed Tehran's ballistic missile program. While Iran is interested in developing a space launch capability, those plans are secondary to its medium and long-range missile efforts.

With newer Shahab-3 variants (and the BM-25, purchased from North Korea last year), the Iranians can now target the entire Middle East and portions of southern Europe. On its current path, Tehran could have a crude ICBM by the middle of the next decade--tipped with a nuclear warhead.

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