Monday, April 03, 2006

Iran Joins the Space Club, but to What End?

The New York Times:
The spacecraft is small by world standards — a microsatellite of a few hundred pounds. Launched in October by the Russians for an oil-rich client, it orbits the earth once every 99 minutes and reportedly has a camera for peering down on large swaths of land.

But what makes this satellite particularly interesting is not its capabilities, which are rudimentary, but its owner: Iran. With last year's launching and another planned in the next few weeks, Tehran has become the newest member of the international space club.

The question now asked in Washington and other capitals is whether Iran's efforts are simply part of its drive to expand its technical prowess or an attempt to add another building block to its nuclear program. In that sense, it is the newest piece of the Iranian atomic puzzle. READ MORE

To some government analysts and other experts in the West, Iran's space debut is potentially worrisome. While world attention has focused on whether Iran is clandestinely seeking nuclear arms, these analysts say the launchings mark a new stage in its growing efforts to master a range of sophisticated technologies, including rockets and satellites. The concern is that Tehran could one day turn such advances to atomic ends.

"It may appear tempting to dismiss Iranian efforts" as relatively crude, said Dr. John B. Sheldon, an analyst at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in Britain who recently wrote a report on Tehran's space program. "But Iran has already demonstrated a persistence and patience that would indicate it is prepared to play a long game in order to achieve its ambitions."

Iran has publicly rejected the goal of developing unconventional arms. It says its space and rocket efforts are either entirely peaceful, aimed at improving the state's telecommunications and monitoring natural disasters (strong earthquakes shook Iran on Friday), or are military efforts meant to enhance its defenses with conventional weapons.

But some Western analysts note that such technologies can also have atomic roles and that a crucial element of a credible nuclear arsenal is the ability to launch a missile accurately and guide a warhead to its target. While Iran now depends on Russia to launch its satellites into orbit, it has vowed to do so itself, and is developing a family of increasingly large rockets. In theory, the biggest could hurl not only satellites into space but warheads between continents.

"The real issue is that they have a very large booster under development," said Dr. Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who wrote a recent report on Iran's nuclear effort.

He said Tehran's bid to develop new rocket and space technologies might be nothing more at this point than its exploring of technological options, at times quite modestly, as in its recent effort to loft experimental satellites.

"That doesn't mean the potential should be minimized," Dr. Cordesman said. "We know these states can achieve technical surprise." On Sunday, Iran said it test-fired a fast underwater missile that could evade sonar and on Friday announced that it had launched a new rocket that can carry multiple warheads and elude radar. The military actions, accompanied by film clips on state television during a week of naval maneuvers, seemed calculated to defy growing pressure on Tehran.

So far, American officials say they have not protested Iran's space program. Intelligence agencies reviewed information about the satellite launching last fall, but concluded that it warranted no action. Nor has the United States urged Russia — a key player in the current negotiations with Iran over its efforts to enrich uranium — to halt the launchings.

But a senior American official who spoke anonymously because he was unauthorized to address the topic publicly said the United States was "taking another look" at pressing Moscow to end the space assistance as a way of pressuring Iran to stop the enrichment of nuclear material.

Analysts across the political spectrum seem to agree that the Iranian missile and satellite programs bear watching, even if judged as presenting no current threat to the United States.

"It's clearly interesting to see what direction they're going," said David C. Wright, a space analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a policy research group in Cambridge, Mass.

The United Nations Security Council is now debating possible sanctions against Iran because many states worry that Tehran's atomic push conceals a clandestine effort to acquire an atom bomb. American intelligence agencies estimate that it is 5 to 10 years away from having enough material for a nuclear weapon.

John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, recently called the danger that Tehran "will acquire a nuclear weapon and the ability to integrate it with ballistic missiles Iran already possesses" a cause "for immediate concern."

Iran has missiles that can reach about 1,000 miles, or as far away as Israel and, as Mr. Negroponte put it, has "the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East." American intelligence officials estimate that it might field an intercontinental missile by 2015, but such forecasts are always rough approximations.

Scores of nations have satellites, including Algeria, Greece, Spain and Tonga. But only a dozen or so have rockets big and powerful enough to put satellites into orbit. In the Middle East, only Israel can now do so.

Tehran's effort to build a fleet of rockets, and to buy and make satellites, has received technical help from not only Russia but China, India, Italy and North Korea.

Its effort began during the war between Iran and Iraq, from 1980 to 1988, when Baghdad fired many rockets and Tehran worked hard to respond in kind. A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a respected arms analysis group in London, sketched the Islamic state's progress.

At first, Iran bought Russian Scud missiles and then learned how to make them on its own, calling them Shahab-1, Persian for shooting star. The missiles, 36 feet tall, can throw one-ton warheads roughly 200 miles. By 1991, Iran learned how to extend their range to about 300 miles, naming the new weapon Shahab-2.

Iran fired waves of these missiles in 1994, 1999 and 2001 at the armed camps of the National Liberation Army of Iran, a dissident force based in Iraq committed to overthrowing the Islamic regime in Tehran.

During that period, Iran also sought to develop a new, more powerful family of missiles, Shahab-3. Based on a North Korean model, they stand 56 feet tall.

In recent military parades, Iran has draped them with banners reading, "We will crush America" and "Wipe Israel off the map."

Iran cloaks its advanced rocket work in as much secrecy as possible, making it hard for Western analysts to discern the details. But they say many signs and declarations indicate that Tehran is working hard on missiles powerful enough to launch satellites into space or warheads between continents.

Charles P. Vick, an expert on the Iranian rocket program at, a research group in Alexandria, Va., said one strategy was apparently to stack a Shahab-1 or Shahab-2 atop a Shahab-3, making a tall missile with two stages. It might have a range of nearly 2,000 miles. Other variants, Mr. Vick said, would go further.

Dr. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said in a recent report that advanced models, if perfected, would "enable Iran to target the U.S. Eastern Seaboard."

Tehran has been more open about its satellite program, making many claims over the years but to date managing only baby steps. All the while, Iranian scientists have hailed the potential benefits of participating in the space age.

In a conference presentation, S. Mostafa Safavi of Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran discussed the value of earth-observation satellites for tracking floods, fighting fires, gauging earthquake damage, finding evacuation routes and identifying high-risk areas.

He also praised reconnaissance satellites, able to peer down on the planet's surface with more powerful cameras, for their ability "to identify smaller features of military interest." For instance, Mr. Safavi noted their capacity to track "departing and arriving vessels at commercial and military ports," calling such observations "an important factor in intelligence surveillance."

In April 2003, the Iran Space Agency ( was founded to coordinate and publicize the nation's space efforts. The agency held meetings that drew experts from around the world, its agenda often centering on the use of space cameras to aid land planning and to manage natural catastrophes.

In May 2004, for instance, the agency sponsored a regional workshop in Tehran entitled: "Space Technology for Environmental Security, Disaster Rehabilitation and Sustainable Development."

Hassan Shafti, the agency's president, opened the session with remarks "in the name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful," according to a transcript. He said the wise application of space technology would raise the quality of life, adding that his agency would play "an important role" in the design, manufacture and launching of Iranian and regional satellites.

But it turned out that a Russian company in the Siberian city of Omsk built Iran's first satellite, Sina-1, named after a Persian philosopher. And the Russian military launched the spacecraft from a remote base in the wilds of northern Russia.

A day earlier, Iran's president declared that Israel "must be wiped off the map," producing global shockwaves that overshadowed the space debut.

Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who publishes Jonathan's Space Report and tracks the Iranian program, said information about the satellite's mission came out slowly, with few details. "It's not clear how much of that is because of military involvement," he said, "or how much is because they don't know how to do public relations."

A month after the satellite's launching, Ahmad Talebzadeh, director of the Iran Space Agency, said Sina-1 could be used to spy on Israel but added that the wide availability of commercial satellite photos made such espionage unnecessary.

Dr. McDowell of Harvard said commercial imagery was often too old and imprecise for spying and setting military targets. "You want to check if the tanks or facilities have moved," he said. "You want to see with your own eyes."

It is unclear if and when Iran might acquire a satellite powerful enough to do such military reconnaissance, which can also give early warning of surprise attack. Experts say Sina-1 is too basic for anything more than general observations.

Dr. Sheldon of the Center for Defense and International Security Studies, a private group at Henley-on-Thames in England, said his own analysis suggested that Sina-1 was probably meant for telecommunications, not earth observations.

Iranian officials say that by 2010 they hope to have roughly a half-dozen satellites in orbit, including a large $132 million one known as Zohreh, or Venus. To be made and launched by Russia, the telecommunications craft is to relay data, audio and television signals.

Yiftah S. Shapir, a space analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, questioned Iran's ability to achieve its ambitious goals. "Iran is motivated," he said in a recent report, adding, however, that "the engine is stalled, and important projects are being delayed."

He laid such failures "to the government's inherent inability to coordinate government agencies, resolve conflicting demands and mobilize the required resources."

Mr. Vick of said Iran has long discussed building a tiny satellite on its own and launching it atop one of its own rockets. In theory, he said, it might fly into orbit atop a Shahab-4 or similar Iranian vehicle.

But Mr. Vick said the Iranians had given no clear indication of when they may attempt that milestone. "It's gone backwards and forwards several times, and left a lot of us wondering what is real and what isn't," he said in an interview. "For now, they're trying to absorb the technology to do this on their own."

Dr. Sheldon of the Center for Defense and International Security Studies predicted that Iran would one day master the fundamentals in regard to its nuclear, ballistic missile and space efforts but made no guess as to whether such accomplishments would take years or decades.

"The Iranians," he said, "are prepared to play a long game."