Security and Defense: High anxiety

In spite of the upcoming election and events in Gaza, Iran swooped back into public consciousness this week, when it launched a satellite into space.

A decade ago, without great fanfare, a group of students from the Technion in Haifa launched into space a satellite they had designed and manufactured. It is still orbiting the Earth. On Tuesday, Iran launched a satellite into space, an impressive technological achievement, Israeli officials said, which grants it membership into the prestigious club of seven nations - the United States, France, Japan, China, India, Russia and Israel - that have independent satellite-launching capabilities. The difference, Israeli experts said, was that while the Technion satellite will remain in orbit for at least another year, the Iranian satellite will likely fall out of the sky in the coming weeks. Whether this scientific prediction proves true, it does not detract from Teheran's success in showing the world that it is the up-and-coming military and technological superpower in the Middle East, a status that Defense Minister Ehud Barak recognized when describing the launch as an impressive technological leap. After two months of headlines focusing on the Gaza Strip and Israel's war against Hamas, Iran has quickly returned to the forefront of the world's attention. On Tuesday, in line with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Iran launched the satellite. A day later, diplomatic officials from Germany, the US Britain, France, China and Russia welcomed the declared willingness of the new American administration to conduct a dialogue with Iran. CALLED OMID, or "hope" in Farsi, the satellite, was launched after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket at an unidentified location in Iran. The rocket launch was detected by the US military. Iran has long held the goal of developing a space program, generating unease among world leaders already concerned about its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The primary concern is not with the satellite's capabilities - which are believed to be limited - but with the missile that carried the device into space. "We do not need to be concerned with the satellite's capabilities," said Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Brothers Institute. "What is concerning is that the same technology can be applied to ballistic missiles, and if you can launch a missile into space, then theoretically you can reach anywhere in the world." MK Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a former head of the Israel Space Agency, explained that "you need specific and added energy when firing a satellite which weighs between 30 and 50 kilograms into space. The equivalent within the atmosphere is firing a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that weighs one ton all the way to Western Europe." THOUGH THE world knew that Iran was working on obtaining a space capability, the launch came as a surprise. "It is one thing to know from intelligence information that they have a certain capability," said one senior official who works on the Iranian issue. "It is another thing to actually see that capability with your own eyes." Iran has taken the world by surprise on two other occasions. The first was in April 2006, when it announced it had succeeded in obtaining the ability to enrich uranium. The second was in November 2007, when it announced that it could enrich uranium at an industrial level. These two events did not come as a surprise by virtue of their happening - Iran was known to be developing an enrichment capability - but rather because of the pace of the program's development, which had been believed to be slower. On Wednesday, Dr. Ariel Levite, a former deputy head of the Atomic Energy Commission, chaired a panel on nuclear proliferation at the Herzliya Conference. At its end, Levite, now a research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asked the panelists to state what they believed would be the worst thing that could happen in the coming year. All five speakers - who came from Israel, Russia and Norway - agreed that an Iranian nuclear weapon, or a major advance in Iran's nuclear program, would be it. "Who knows?" said panelist Dr. Oded Brosh, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya. "Maybe they will surprise us again."