February 27, 2008
By Peter Brookes
As the world continues to hem and haw about Iran's "peaceful"
nuclear program, Tehran continues, slowly but surely, to present
clues as to its likely true intentions.
The latest piece in the puzzle? Iran's space program - an effort
that could feed its ability to develop an intercontinental
ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of reaching the United States
with a nuclear weapon.
Indeed, on Feb. 5, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered
the launch of a ballistic missile described as a "space launch
vehicle," or SLV.
The single-stage missile was launched from a new space center in
northern Iran, inaugurated just that day. Ahmadinejad led the
countdown, promising more launches - and a continuation of
Iran's nuke program.
While there's controversy about the test's success, Iran claims
it set the stage for a future launch of the first Iranian-built
satellite, the Omid (Hope), expected to be ready by next spring or
Sure, Iran's rulers have a lot of relatively benign
reasons to want a space program. National pride in such an
achievement might distract the captive populace from its social and
economic suffering, helping legitimize the unpopular regime.
The program could also build prestige - Iran would be the first
Muslim state with space-launch capability. The neighbors would be
green with envy as Tehran lurches toward leadership of the Islamic
It's also just useful to be able to launch your own
civilian satellites for communications or other objectives, rather
than relying on others to launch for you. (Russia launched Iran's
only satellite into orbit back in October 2005.)
Iran would surely argue that it needs to be self-reliant for
space launches - just like it (self-servingly) says it needs to be
self-sufficient in enriching uranium for its nuclear program.
That said, there are other advantages. Military satellites can
relay secure communications, gather intelligence, provide early
warning and target opposition forces. Even a few commun-
ications/intelligence satellites would vastly improve Iran's
military capabilities against its most likely foes, which Tehran
has dubbed "The Big Satan" (the United States) and the "Little
Plus, a space program, especially a space-launch capability, is
critical to developing ICBM capacity. (Think back to the panic
caused by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957: It meant that
Soviet ICBMs weren't far behind.)
Theoretically, if you can launch a ballistic missile that can
place a satellite into earth orbit, you have the scientific
wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead,
including a nuke.
In that light, Iran's space efforts follow an unnerving pattern:
In the late 1990s, North Korea used a "civilian" space program to
clandestinely manufacture and test a missile with ICBM
And Iran's defense ministry plays a prominent role in the space
effort. Also involved: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which
manages Iran's medium-range Shahab ballistic-missile program. Some
experts believe the Shahab program could morph over time into a
SLV/ICBM program. That would likely require foreign support or
purchases from (say) Russia or North Korea - but the Shahab is
already a knock-off of the North Korean No Dong ballistic
Fortunately, an ICBM isn't around the corner: Iran still needs a
more energetic (multi-stage) missile to carry a nuclear-sized
payload (one or two thousand pounds) to intercontinental ranges -
plus, a re-entry vehicle capable of withstanding extreme heats and
pressures. Still, a two-stage missile from Iran could reach our
East Coast; three-stages, the whole United States.
Of course, it could be just a space program. But Tehran's
built a record of deceit, denial and deception over its nuclear
program for the last 20 years; why should we - even for a moment -
buy into the idea that its civilian space program isn't just a step
toward an ICBM?
Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former
US deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in the New York Post
As the world continues to hem and haw about Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program, Tehran continues, slowly but surely, to present clues as to its likely true intentions.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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