Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Masquerade Continues

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has again vowed that his country will "soon" launch a satellite into space, using a domestically-built rocket.

If such promises sound familiar, they should. Tehran has been tinkering with space launch and satellite programs for years, with marginal results.

During a meeting with Iranian expatriates in New York--and carried on state-run television in Tehran--Ahmadinejad said that the planned launch will carry the satellite to an orbit of 430 miles, using a rocket with 16 engines.

But the Iranian leader didn't say what type of satellite would be placed in orbit. AP's staff stenographer in Iran, Nasser Karimi, said the platform will "likely be a commercial one for communication or meteorological research purposes."

While Tehran clearly has an interest in space, achieving the stated goal will represent a tall order. To date, Iran's booster program has achieved a rather checkered history; just last month, a test of a so-called space launch rocket ended in failure. The booster used in that attempt was called a Safir, a three-stage design incorporating Iranian, Chinese and North Korea technology.

Originally described as a "success" by Iranian media, the August Safir test represented another setback for Tehran's space and missile program. According to tracking data collected by U.S. air and naval platforms, the rocket failed well before it reached the altitude required to put a small satellite in orbit.

But claims about a "space program" are little more than cover. In reality, Iran is using the Safir and similar projects to perfect long-range ballistic missiles. The same technology required for launching satellites is applicable to intermediate and intercontinental missile systems, designed to put a nuclear warhead on a distant target.

Fact is, Tehran's "space launch" capabilities are nascent at best, with no more than a limited ability to put very small payloads in orbit. That's not exactly what satellite operators--even those in Iran--are looking for.

Let's say you're a satellite TV or phone company in the Middle East or Asia. Would you place a multi-million dollar payload on a booster that is likely to fail? Tellingly, the AP article notes that Iran has (traditionally) relied on other countries to put its satellites into space. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the Safir.

But Tehran isn't worried about the satellite business; it's focusing on the development of long-range missiles, to be used as delivery platforms for nuclear weapons that are now under development. Iran will eventually get around to putting a rudimentary payload in orbit (using one of its rockets), but it will largely be for show. The real reasons behind Iran's "space program" have nothing to do with satellites, or other peaceful purposes.

No comments: