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Iran Space Launch Raises Missile Concerns
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Peter Crail

Iran carried out a test of a space launch vehicle Aug. 17, claiming the test was in preparation for placing an Iranian satellite in orbit. Although not believed to have been successful, the test has continued to raise concerns in the West. U.S. and European governments fear that Iran's development of rockets capable of placing satellites in orbit will improve Iran's ability to build longer-range ballistic missiles.

Indeed, the rocket test did demonstrate the connection between Iran's ballistic missile program and its space program. The two-staged rocket, named Safir (Ambassador), is believed to make use of a modified version of Iran's most advanced ballistic missile system, the Shahab-3, as its first stage. The Safir's second stage appears to use an indigenously developed propulsion system. Iran has not yet successfully tested a multiple-staged missile or rocket.

The Aug. 17 rocket test followed the launch of two suborbital sounding rockets designed to carry out scientific experiments at high altitudes. The two rockets, launched in February 2007 and February 2008, were also variations of the Shahab-3 missile.

Iran carried out a test of the Shahab-3 during military exercises held July 9-10. Iranian officials claimed that the test involved a variant with a range of 2,000 kilometers. However, the missile appeared to have been a standard Shahab-3 missile with a range of about 1,200 kilometers. The dimensions of the missile reported by the Iranian state-run media July 9 were nearly identical to the estimated dimensions of the Shahab-3 originally developed in the late 1990s, leaving little room for modifications that would be needed to extend the missile's range.

Speaking to the Iranian press following the Aug. 17 space launch, Reza Taqipur, the head of Iran's Aerospace Organization, stressed the "home-grown" nature of the Safir system. The Shahab-3, the rocket's first stage, is based on North Korea's Nodong-1 ballistic missile design, but the second stage does appear to represent an advance in Iran's domestic ballistic missile capabilities. Former UN weapons inspector Geoffrey Forden told Arms Control Today Aug. 18 that the second stage of the Safir demonstrated that the increasing sophistication of Iran's missile development "is driven by indigenous innovation" as opposed to foreign assistance. He added that "the important thing is that Iran, not North Korea, not Iraq, is the first country to break out of the Scud type of missile mold."

Many countries in the developing world acquired Scud missiles from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the missiles have served as the template around which several missile programs have centered. North Korea's Nodong-1, for example, is based on the Scud design.

Specifically, Forden assessed that the second-stage rocket uses a new thrust vector control system and that the difficulties in developing such a system helps to explain why the Safir appeared to have flown off course during its second stage. This system provides a more efficient steering mechanism for the rocket to carry out course adjustments than traditional Scud-based designs.

Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, agreed that the Safir's second stage represented a departure from the "Scud mold." Rubin told Arms Control Today Aug. 19 that "Iran took a risky path" by forgoing a previously tested Taepo Dong-1-based system and pursuing a newer design with only two stages.

North Korea tested a three-stage variant of its 2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile as a space launch vehicle in 1998. The test failed due to a malfunction with its third stage.

Most space launch vehicles use more than two sets of engines in order to produce enough thrust to place satellites in orbit. Questioning why Iran decided not to add a third stage to the Safir, Rubin suggested that Tehran may have been discouraged by the failure of the third stage during North Korea's 1998 space test or that the first stage did not have enough thrust to permit the added weight of additional stages.

Using the two-stage design, the Safir would only have the lifting power to deliver a very small payload. Iran has declared its intention to use the system to launch its 20-kilogram Omid (Hope) satellite. Forden assessed that the Safir would not have sufficient power to place a satellite in orbit.

Experts generally consider missiles capable of carrying at least 500 kilograms to be usable for delivering a nuclear weapon.

In spite of Iran's missile advances, the country still faces a number of hurdles in increasing the range of its ballistic missiles. The Shahab-3, Iran's longest-range missile, reportedly has a range up to 2,000 kilometers, placing all of the Middle East and parts of southern Europe within striking distance. (See ACT, October 2007. )

Extending that range will require mastering the staging process. In addition to the failed Safir test, Iran's previous tests of multiple-stage missiles were unsuccessful, including the 2,000-kilometer-range Ashura in November 2007. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

Tehran would also need to develop a re-entry vehicle for the missile's warhead to protect it upon return into the atmosphere. The United States and its allies claim that materials acquired from Iranian technicians by Western intelligence agencies demonstrate that Iran has been working on designs for a re-entry vehicle. A February 2008 International Atomic Energy Agency report stated that the re-entry design contained in these materials was "quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device." (See ACT, March 2008. )

The United States responded to the test by highlighting the tie between the technologies used to develop space-faring rockets and those used to develop long-range ballistic missiles. National Security Council spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said Aug. 18 that Iran's test and the "dual-use possibilities for their ballistic missile program are inconsistent with their UN Security Council obligations."

The UN Security Council has adopted three resolutions sanctioning Iranian entities involved in Iran's missile programs and requiring that all states take steps to prevent Iran from acquiring technology relevant to the development of such missiles. However, the resolutions have not placed an obligation on Iran to halt or curtail these programs.

Israeli officials offered a more muted response to the launch. Yitzhak Ben Israel, chairman of the Israeli Space Agency, told Israeli public radio that because Israeli territory had already been within the range of Iran's Shahab-3 missiles, "the threat posed by Iran comes from its nuclear program and not from its satellites or ballistic missiles."

In response to the threats faced by Israel from Iran's missiles, the United States has agreed to deploy an X-band early-warning radar system to Israel that would potentially increase Israel's ability to track and intercept incoming ballistic missiles. According to the terms of the agreement, the details of which have yet to be finalized, the X-band system would be operated by U.S. personnel from the Pentagon's European Command.

Lt. General Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told Defense News Aug. 7 that if the radar can be tied into Israel's Arrow missile defense system, Israel "will be able to launch that interceptor way before they could with an autonomous system."

Posted: September 2, 2008