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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Iran Makes First Successful Space Launch

Peter Crail

Iran announced Feb. 3 that it carried out its first successful launch of a satellite into orbit. The launch raised international concerns regarding the progress Iran has made in its ballistic missile program, in particular the possibly that Iran may develop an ICBM in the future.

The state-run Iranian press agency PressTV said Feb. 3 that Iran's two-stage space-launch vehicle, named Safir-2 ("ambassador" in Farsi), placed a small satellite in orbit aimed at "gathering information and testing equipment."

Iranian officials declared last year that Tehran intended to launch a satellite by the end of the current Iranian calendar year, which concludes in March. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed the day of the announcement that Iran placed a satellite in orbit.

Iran unsuccessfully tested its first space-launch vehicle, also named Safir, in August 2008. (See ACT, September 2008.)

The Feb. 3 space launch appears to have demonstrated Iran's improved proficiency with several types of rocket subsystems as well as the increasing sophistication of the technology it employs.

For example, the Safir-2 liftoff was the first known successful launch of any Iranian multistaged system, suggesting that Tehran may be increasingly capable of employing multistaged missiles in the near future. Recent tests of Iran's two-staged missiles have not been successful. (See ACT, January/February 2008.)

Staging allows multiple rocket engines to be stacked on top of one another to increase the range and carrying capacity of the rocket system. It is one of the critical technologies needed for long-range missiles.

In addition to Iran's further development of rocket staging, it also appears to have acquired a more sophisticated rocket propellant capability.

At the time of the August 2008 Safir test, some technical assessments suggested that the rocket would not have enough power to place a satellite in orbit. (See ACT, September 2008.) Former UN weapons inspector Geoffrey Forden told Arms Control Today Feb. 4 that it is difficult to see how even an "incrementally improved" two-staged missile based on "Scud-type technology" could have placed a satellite in orbit. He argued that it "would definitely have to have a much improved thrust, perhaps even using cryogenic fuels such as liquid oxygen."

The Soviet Union originally developed the short-range Scud missile during the 1950s. A large number of countries acquired these types of missiles throughout the Cold War and used them as the basis to develop more-advanced missile systems.

Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, made an assessment similar to Forden's Feb. 21 in The Wall Street Journal. He argued that the Safir-2's propulsion system "is based on the more modern technology of storable liquid propellants," adding that such technology makes it "launch-ready at any moment-a significant advantage for military missiles."

Rubin also noted that the technologies that Iran has been demonstrating are internationally proscribed and that "none of those technologies should have been available to Iran."

Since December 2006, the UN Security Council has adopted three sanctions resolutions prohibiting states from providing Iran with technologies that could be used to benefit its nuclear and missile programs. Exports of the missile-related technologies proscribed by the resolutions have also been controlled since 1987 by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a group that now includes 34 states that manufacture and trade in such goods.

Despite its progress, Iran has not yet demonstrated some technologies needed to field an ICBM, particularly one capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Although Iran was able to attain an increase in engine power with the Safir-2, the rocket was only capable of carrying a small satellite reportedly weighing about 25 kilograms. The MTCR considers missiles capable of carrying at least 500 kilograms to be nuclear capable.

Iran is also not believed to have developed a re-entry vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear-sized payload although U.S. officials have asserted that materials acquired from Iranian technicians demonstrate that Iran has been working on re-entry vehicle designs. 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.)

Responding to the Safir-2 launch, the United States expressed concern that it would be used to advance Iran's missile capabilities. Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell told reporters Feb. 3 that "the technology that is used to get this satellite into orbit...is one that could also be used to propel long-range ballistic missiles."

French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Eric Chevallier expressed similar concerns, stating Feb. 4, "We can't but link this to the very serious concerns about the development of military nuclear capability."

Iran's space launch vehicle is closely related to its missile program. The first stage of the Safir-2 is a slightly modified version of its medium-range Shahab-3 missile. (See ACT, September 2008.)