On Feb. 5, just a few days before the 29th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the launch of a ballistic rocket described as a "space launch vehicle," or SLV. The single-stage rocket, called the Explorer-1, was launched from a new and secret space center in northern Iran that was inaugurated that day.
Ahmadinejad did the countdown, and the group present shouted, "Allahu Akbar" - God is great. The Iranian authorities claim that the launch of the rocket was a test for a future launch of the first Iran-built satellite, the Omid (Hope). Iran's news agency reported that the launch of the satellite would take place by March 2009, when the next Iranian year will end. Mostafa Muhammad Najjar the Iranian defense minister, announced that the Omid satellite may be launched by May or June of this year. Iran's first satellite, the Sinah-1, was built and launched in Russia, in October 2005.
Iran has defended the launch of its latest rocket by vehemently maintaining its civilian nature. However, experts voice at least two concerns regarding the Iranian missile program. One is that the Explorer-1 is a SLV version of a new ballistic missile that was tested last November, with an estimated range of 2,000 km. It is probable that this new missile is none other than the Shahab 4, which is likely based on technology transfer by Russia. This is the single-stage Soviet SS-4 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which was deployed in Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962. Coincidentally, it also had a space launch version.
Secondly, this may be the initial testing of a new ballistic missile that may be of a combined Russian and North Korean pedigree. There were previous reports that Iran was developing a 4,000 km range new ballistic missile. According to Jane's Defense Weekly, such a missile would be capable to serve as a SLV, and may be identified as either the Shahab 5 or Shahab 6. The British Daily Telegraph reported that the former high ranking members of the Russian military have facilitated a multi-million 2003 missile technology transfer agreement between Iran and North Korea.
According to the newspaper, Russia has exported to Iran, "production facilities, diagrams and operating instruction so the missile can be built in Iran, as well as liquid propellant (to fuel the rockets). Russian specialists have also been sent to Iran to help development of its Shahab 5 missile project." Transporter erector launcher (TEL) technology developed by the North Koreans for their latest Taepo-dong 2 ballistic missile was being sent to Iran. The Telegraph mentioned that the new ballistic missile that Iran was developing with North Koreans and Russians has a range of 3,500 km, and a payload of 1.2 tons. Such range would enable the missile to reach large portions of Europe, including Berlin, Rome, France and all of Central Europe. The payload would enable the missile to carry a nuclear warhead. This missile could have a space launch capability as well.
Finally, the new space rocket might be linked to the 4,000 km range ballistic missile Iran is developing, because it has been suggested that the rocket engine of the Shahab 4 could be that of the Soviet SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missile. The SS-5 had a maximum range of 4,500 km and was also a single-stage missile fueled by liquid propellant. It too had a space-launch version.
Iran has received assistance from China in the development of its ballistic missile program focusing on improving missile accuracy. Thus, Iranian missile technology is related to Russian, North Korean and possibly Pakistan origins.
It is highly significant that Iran's missile program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), the most loyal element of the regime. It is not controlled by civilians; not even by regular military. As Iran achieves its own space launch capability, it improves its long-range ballistic missiles. Such was the case of the Soviet Union, with its flight test of the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 (SS-6), in August 1957, followed by the launching the following October of the first satellite Sputnik. Another example is China with its DF-5 ICBM, which has a civilian space rocket clone, the Long March-2C. Moreover, China's first SLV rockets, the Long March-1, were developed from an intermediate range ballistic missile, the DF-4.
France successfully developed a SLV capability by utilizing components and stages from its ballistic missile technology, thus developing the Diamant space rocket, which successfully launched a satellite in 1965. India began in 1979 the development of the Agni 1 intermediate range ballistic missile. This missile uses a first-stage motor similar to the first-stage motor of India's Satellite Launch Vehicle-3, which began launching satellites in 1979 It is likely that Iran's Explorer-1 rocket is the result of the country's advanced ballistic missile program. The greater the range and payload capacity, the more capable is a missile to serve as a civilian SLV. Thus, the launching of the Iranian rocket could mark a threshold in Tehran's development of longer range ballistic missiles. And it is highly unlikely that without plans to deploy nuclear warheads on its ballistic missiles, the Islamic republic would be developing civilian space launch capability when commercial space launch services are readily and cheaply available from French Guyana to Russia to India and China.
It is expected that the Shahab 4 and Shahab 5 would have, in addition to inertial navigation systems, advanced navigation technology, possibly sold by Russia, which could be competing with China in the lucrative Iranian ballistic missile market. The navigation systems of these missiles would have the Russian Glonass satellite navigation capability, Moscow's answer to the U.S.-developed Global Positioning System, the GPS. The Glonass system is expected to have global reach with 24 satellites in orbit by the end of 2009, and to provide by 2011 a level of accuracy to civilians of one meter. The Glonass system will be compatible with the U.S.' GPS and Europe's future Magellan systems. Russia's Topol-M ICBM has a guidance system featuring inertial navigation compatible with Glonass. Eventually, the Iranian ballistic missiles would be capable of being armed with nuclear, chemical, high explosive, and conventional warheads, and possibly special warheads as in some Russian ballistic missiles like electro-magnetic pulse, and anti-radiation (against radars).
Attempts to thwart Iran's missile ambitions are hampered by the fact that Tehran is being backed by Russia and China. These powers are actually partners in the Iranian ballistic missile and space programs which they view as both geopolitically desirable (to dilute U.S. influence) - and lucrative. Russian, Chinese and North Korean cooperation would be desirable and necessary to stop Iran's missile program. Although China is not a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement which limits the spread of advanced weapons technology (the successor of CoCom - the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls) and the Missile Technology Control Regime, Russia is. Pressure should be exerted on Moscow to abide by these control regimes.
China should be invited one and again to become a member of these regimes, and should be persuaded to act as a responsible power and thus work as part of the international community to help stop the exports of its own and North Korean missile technology and to exert pressure on Iran to halt its growing missile program.
Beyond that, only deployment of missile defense systems in the Middle East and Europe, and Iran's fear of nuclear retaliation, may prevent Tehran from imposing the experiences of the Mutually Assured Destruction policies with which the Cold War generations grew up in the East and the West.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Middle East Times