May 9, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Looking beyond Iran's space launcher desire

New information continues to chip away at Iran's rock-like insistence that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes - and not a nuclear weapon effort as many suspect.

The latest news is that Tehran continues to put more centrifuges online at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which could lead to the production of low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium for weapons.

While enriching uranium is the proverbial 'long pole in the tent' in developing nuclear weapons, Iran may also be working on another important aspect of a military programme: a long-range delivery system.

Like its 'civilian' nuclear efforts that remained undeclared for 20 some years, long-range ballistic missiles are likely being developed under cover of another supposed non-military effort: Iran's space programme.

Indeed, Tehran's budding space work could lead to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching all of Europe and the United States with a significant payload such as a nuclear weapon.

For example, on 5 February Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led the countdown for the launch of a ballistic missile described as a 'space launch vehicle', or SLV, from a new space centre inaugurated just that day.

While there is controversy about the success of the test, Iran claims it was setting the stage for the future launch of the first Iranian-built satellite - the Omid (Hope) - which is expected to be ready for service by mid-2009. Iran has a lot of relatively benign reasons to want a space programme. National pride in such an achievement might distract the restive populace from its social and economic suffering, helping legitimise the unpopular regime.

The programme could also build prestige for the ambitious state: Iran would be the first Muslim state with a space-launch capability. Neighbours would be envious as Tehran propels itself toward leadership of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

It is also useful to be able to launch your own communications or scientific satellites, rather than having to relying on others to launch them for you. Russia launched Iran's only other 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) insists it needs to be self-sufficient in enriching uranium to produce fuel for its Bushehr nuclear reactor, despite Russian assistance.

That said, there are other advantages, too. Satellites could also enhance Iran's military might, relaying secure communications, gathering intelligence, providing early warning and targeting opposition forces.

Plus, a space programme, especially a space-launch capacity, is critical to developing an ICBM capability. Remember: Moscow's launch of Sputnik in 1957 meant that a Soviet ICBM capability was not 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 weapon of mass destruction.

Similarly, Iran's space efforts follow an unnerving proliferation pattern. In the late 1990s North Korea used a 'civilian' space programme to clandestinely manufacture and test a Taepo Dong ballistic missile with ICBM potential. Fortunately, the multi-stage missile landed in the Pacific after overflying Japan, while North Korea insisted the launch had successfully put a small satellite into orbit, transmitting patriotic songs back to eager listeners.

Iran's defence ministry plays a prominent role in the putative civilian space effort. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which manages Iran's Shahab medium-range ballistic missile programme, is also involved.

Some experts believe the Shahab, which is based on the North Korean (medium-range) Nodong missile, could morph into an SLV/ICBM programme. Indeed, the Taepo Dong is believed to be based on various Nodong rocketry configurations.

It gets worse: in a February meeting the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed several startling pieces of intelligence about Iran's nuclear programme based on information provided by a number of member states.

One piece of intelligence showed that after 2003 Iran was involved in studies of multipoint detonation systems, the precise timing capability of which is critical for triggering a nuclear detonation.

The Vienna-based organisation also concluded that Tehran had been involved in work - as late as 2004 - on the design of a nuclear warhead for the Shahab, which can already reach the entire Middle East and southern Europe.

Fortunately, an Iranian ICBM isn't just around the corner: Iran still needs a more energetic, ie multistage, missile to carry a nuclear-sized payload (one or two thousand pounds - 450 kg-900 kg) to intercontinental ranges.

Although Iran hasn't successfully tested a multistage missile yet, experts estimate a two-stage missile from Iran could reach all of Europe and America's East Coast; three stages could range the whole of the US.

The downside is that Iran could move forward with alacrity if it receives outside assistance on its space and or missile programme. Seemingly, the most likely candidates for that assistance are North Korea or Russia.

In the end, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, it could be just a space programme, but considering Tehran's record of nuclear deceit, denial and deception, it is hard to believe Iran's space programme isn't just more of the same.

Peter Brookes is Chung Ju Yung Fellow and Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Jane's Defense Weekly