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Iran Enters the Space Arena

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 20, 2009

    One year ago, in February 2008, Iran launched a sounding rocket into outer space to mark the opening of its first space centre. This rocket essentially belonged to the ‘category’ of instrument-carrying crafts. Such crafts are designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during their sub-orbital flight. Within a year, on 3 February 2009, Iran successfully launched its first domestically manufactured satellite "Omid" (Hope), which was carried into space by the home-built Safir-2 space rocket.

    With this launch Iran has secured a presence in outer space and joined a small club of eight nations that can place a satellite in orbit. The launch coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Omid has an elliptical orbit of a minimum of 250 km and a maximum of 400 km, and its weight is estimated at about 27 kg. It is likely that Iran could launch another satellite by the end of the Iranian year on March 20, 2009. There are also plans to test a new version of a radar evading aircraft during the same time. Iran’s first satellite Sinah-1 was launched on October 28, 2005 by Russia from the Plesetsk Space Center. Russia had also built it as part of a joint project whose purpose was to take pictures of Iran and to monitor natural disasters.

    Countries like the US, UK and France have reacted to the February 3, 2009 Iranian satellite launch negatively. In their view, this technology demonstration implicitly means that Iran is inching closer towards ballistic missile capability. They feel that along with its covert nuclear weapon programme Iran is simultaneously working towards developing technology for delivering nuclear weapons. Though Iranian authorities claim that the satellite is meant for research and telecommunications purposes and that their intentions are peaceful, the fact remains that this successful launch on its own booster vehicle does demonstrate ballistic missile technology. The timing of the launch was also significant given that it occurred a day before the meeting of the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

    Israel has reacted sharply to this development and feels that this "technological achievement" points to a capability of delivering a nuclear bomb on Israel and beyond. However, there are differences among experts about the exact timeline regarding the maturation of Iran’s nuclear programme. Some are of the view that Iran may be almost a decade away from making nuclear weapons, though some Israelis feel that they have only a one year window. It may be noted that all major space faring nations with a nuclear capability have put nuclear warheads atop their long range ballistic missiles.

    According to American experts Iran has demonstrated rudimentary space launch capabilities and the existing technology base could well allow the Iranians to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Certainly reaching those heights is not an easy job and it will take time but the point to note is that Iran has already taken the first step successfully. Iran has major ambitions in the space field for the future. It proposes to send exploratory rockets into space with live animals on board. It even intends to work towards manned space flight. Iran has a space roadmap and intends to become a leading space power by 2021.

    It would be of interest to see how India reacts to this development. India is not appreciative of Iran’s hidden nuclear weapons agenda. It knows that Iran has received nuclear weapons technology from the AQ Khan network. India wants Iran to take steps to re-establish international confidence in the nature of its nuclear programme, as required by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. Despite good diplomatic relations with Iran, India has voted against Tehran at IAEA meetings on this issue. Iran has also criticized India for launching the Israeli spy satellite TECSAR in January 2008. For India it was a commercial venture but Iran feels that India has helped Israel put its ‘eyes in the sky’ to conduct espionage operations.

    It appears that global efforts to cap the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery platform development technologies are receiving a setback. The ‘master-proliferator’ Dr. A.Q. Khan is now a free man. There are reports that North Korea may undertake a Taepodong-2 missile test. It also may carry out such a test in the guise of a satellite launch to remain clear of any controversy. It has been reported that North Korea may soon launch Kwangmyungsung-2, an artificial satellite. Thus, it appears that ‘rogue’ states with nuclear weapons and delivery platform development intentions are attempting to demonstrate their ballistic missile capabilities through satellite launches.