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February 27, 2008

Mullahs In Space

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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 early summer.

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 world.

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 Satan" (Israel).

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 potential.

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 missile.

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?

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in the New York Post

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