Iran's claim that its Sina-1 satellite is capable of spying on Israel is more wishful thinking than a strategic threat. But it does show Iran's determination to attain independent satellite capability for eventual military purposes, an Israeli expert on Iranian satellite development said Thursday.
Yiftah Shapir, editor of the Middle East Military Balance at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said that despite Iranian claims, the Sina-1 was too small to be effective.
"According to the Iranians, its camera has a resolution of about 50 meters. That means that it has no military significance," he said. "The bottom line is that the Iranian spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
By launching the satellite, Iran became the 43rd country to own a satellite. But it is far behind Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Israel.
Yet press reports quoted Iranian officials saying they now had a satellite capable of spying on Israel.
However, even Iran's Deputy Telecommunications Minister Ahmad Talebzadeh, who heads the space program, told reporters the Sina-1 was a research satellite and could not be used for military purposes.
"Technically speaking, yes it can monitor Israel," he told The Associated Press. "But we don't need to do it. You can buy satellite photos of Israeli streets from the market."
The Sina-1's stated purpose is to take pictures of Iran and to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation. Sina-1 has a three-year lifetime.
According to Iranian spokesmen, the satellite cost $15 million and was designed by the Russian firm Polyot, based in Omsk, which also produces the Kosmos-3M SLV. One can assume that the Sina-1 is a version of the Sterkh satellite, designed and marketed by the same firm, Shapir said.
The next stage is for the Russians to launch an Iranian-built reconnaissance satellite, known as Mesbah, which was based on Italian technology. The satellite is completed and its launch is expected to occur in a few months.
Shapir, who has followed the Iranian missile and satellite program for years, said Teheran's ultimate goal is to produce "pure" Iranian satellites and launch them using their Shehab-4 missile.
But he believes the Iranians will have difficulty progressing beyond their current stage. He questioned whether the $132 million deal Iran signed with Russia to build and launch a telecommunications satellite, called Zohreh, would be completed in two years.
He recounted how Iran has been trying to purchase a communications satellite since 1972 from the Americans, then the French and later the Russians, but they always fell through.
"The reasons for this failure are not clear, but they seem to be linked to the government's inherent inability to coordinate government agencies, temper irreconcilable demands and mobilize the required resources for the projects," Shapir said.
"In other words, Iran has both the motivation to achieve far-reaching goals and a significant technological infrastructure, but the wheels nevertheless grind slowly and important projects suffer repeated delays.
"If this assessment is correct and there is a deep systemic failure, it could have implications for Iran's ability to realize its ambitions in other programs, including those devoted to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons."