“If science is to be found in the heavens, then people from the
will go and get it.” These words of the 7th century prophet Muhammad are printed on the back of
‘s 50,000 riyal note right next to an atomic symbol.
‘s recent progress on the nuclear front is unclear, but in mastering rocket science, Iranian engineers have made a significant step forward this month.
On Feb. 3, the Iranian Space Agency orbited the telecommunication research satellite Omid, which means “hope” in Farsi, aboard the domestically made single launch vehicle (SLV). And if last August the information about the launch of this satellite was conflicting -Iranian officials maintained that it was a space launcher test flight with a dummy, whereas some Western experts argued that the satellite was real but the launch resulted in failure – this time there was no room for doubt. The indigenously manufactured satellite was successfully launched by the indigenously built rocket Safir-2, thus making
a member of an exclusive club of only nine other countries which have demonstrated the capacity to build and launch satellites atop their own carriers.
According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the information gathered by Omid will be used for meteorological, environmental and agricultural purposes. However, traditionally, any
progress in nuclear or rocket science alarms the community of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nonproliferation experts. Moreover, it demonstrates the ability to haul payloads into space which potentially may have military applications.
It did not take long for the new administration officials to tie the launch to a potential increase of nuclear and missile proliferation threats coming from
. State Department spokesman Robert Wood called the launch “a matter of great concern” and told reporters that any attempt by
to improve its military capacity violates U.N. Security Council resolutions forbidding it from developing its missile technology. His boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warned that “if
does not comply with United Nations Security Council and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) mandates, there must be consequences.”
Her British counterpart, Bill Rammell, supported the point saying that the launch “underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about
‘s intentions,” whereas the French Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed “worries that there are development capabilities that can be used in the ballistic framework.” Responding to the launch,
‘s Defense Minister EhudBarak once again reiterated that Tel Aviv was considering all of its options to deal with
But political rhetoric aside, is this launch really the big step that brought
much closer to mastering ICBM technology? The assessments of the technological breakthrough associated with the recent launch vary significantly – from assumptions made by some Russian analysts that the Iranians are not capable yet of orbiting a satellite, and the whole launch story is just another orchestrated show, to the fears of Rick Lehner of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency that the “payload deployment represents a technological leap that is of great concern, since they can grow an ICBM capability.”
The Safir-2 is a heavily modified version of a North Korean Taepo-Dong-1-class rocket and cannot carry more than a 99-kilogram payload into space. A crude nuclear explosive device would weigh much more than that. Most experts agree that the Iranian engineers have not yet mastered long-range multistage rocket technology of the kind needed to launch an advanced warhead. To build an ICBM they would need to develop a more powerful basic rocket or more upper stages. As such, no new threat to
has been posed.
has had Shahab medium-range missile capabilities to strike
for quite some time, and, therefore, Safir SLV has not changed the regional strategic balance. Like the range of the Shahab-3 missile, the range of Safir-2 is not long enough to reach much of
Under the circumstances, the most balanced and reasonable reaction seems to be the one suggested by John Bolton, a former
ambassador to the United Nations and former undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. “Putting a satellite into orbit is not the same as dropping a nuclear weapon on a city,” he argues. “We should not be alarmist, but neither should we be blase.”
Incidentally, the launch was not a satellite technology breakthrough either. A 27-kilogram Omid is a light, small satellite using primitive Sputnik-type technology that has been around for the past 50 years.
Traditionally, after each new demonstration of
‘s growing missile capabilities, we try to predict responses from major regional and world players. Although the launch has not posed any additional security threat to Tel Aviv, many Israeli officials try to persuade the West to take a tougher stance toward Tehran arguing that Iran’s progressing missile program is of grave concern not only for Israel but for European nations as well. A tougher stance, however, is exactly what President Obama tries to deviate from when declaring a new policy of direct negotiations with Iranian leaders. For this particular reason, the official reaction from the White House to the recent Iranian satellite launch was more subdued and balanced compared to one that we could have expected from the previous administration.
A week after the launch, five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council got together in
, to work out a joint policy toward
‘s nuclear and missile program. And once again, the Big Five has failed to agree on concerted actions to persuade
to curb its military programs. All they could do is bless the Obama administration as it intends to engage Iranian spiritual leaders in direct negotiations.
agreed “to consult on the next steps as the
administration undertakes its Iranian policy review,” according to the post-conference press release.
The first reaction of Russian analysts was anticipation of the increased pressure from
to proceed with building the U.S. Missile Defense System third site in
. Alexander Khramchishyn, an expert from the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, said that “Iran’s launch was in America’s favor … Russian stance on the Missile Defense System is becoming extremely weak – the Americans will just put on the negotiation table data on this missile launch.”
However, it seems the Russians worry in vain, at least for now. Lack of unity among the European nations in reaction to
‘s ambitions and the new
administration’s shift from tension to constructive dialogue with Iranian leaders makes immediate deployment of anti-missile defense in
unlikely. Besides, NATO, through its official representative James Appaturay, has clearly indicated that the recent launch “is not viewed as a significant step in mastering ballistic missile technologies by
” and it does not call for rushing the missile defense deployment.
Incidentally, instead of disputes over radars and interceptors against nonexisting Iranian long-range missiles, Russian and American space engineers may now be engaged in solving more burning problems, like prevention of further collisions of the two nations’ satellites. Finally, what exactly was the message that Iranian President MahmoudAhmadinejad tried to convey by ordering the launch of Safir-2? It would be fair to assume that the message had two dimensions – international and domestic. The launch has demonstrated that years of Western sanctions have not prevented Iranian rocket scientists from progressing in developing capabilities to build space launchers and satellites. As such, the
negotiators should rather consider more constructive and respectful approaches than just threatening to keep slapping
with ineffective sanctions in an attempt to halt its missile and nuclear programs.
The launch was also meant to contribute to
‘s image in the region. “
strives to be a regional scientific power, and a space program is part of that ambition,” said RahmanGhahremanpour, an arms control analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in
Domestically, the launch was touted as a technological breakthrough that has brought the Persians into the prestigious group of a handful of nations capable of launching homemade satellites aboard homemade rockets. And, of course, making the launch a part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that swept the U.S.-installed shah from power has added its portion of anti-Americanism – a sentiment that is supported by many in Iran.
Lastly, technological accomplishments and enhanced international status achieved during Ahmadinejad’s tenure will surely strengthen his position at the presidential elections in June. The incumbent will run against the former president, Mohammad Khatami, a popular figure who was elected president twice in a row and was constitutionally barred from seeking the third consecutive term in 2005.
Experts’ opinions may vary on what exactly the Iranian president’s message was, but the satellite launch had a message alright. The space launcher was named Safir, or “messenger” in Farsi, for a reason.
Victor Zaborskiy is the founder of Special Trade Operations Consulting, Atlanta