Analysis: Putting Iran's first homemade satellite launch into perspective

The threat from the solid-fuel Sejil missile is much more serious.

iran model satellite celebration 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
iran model satellite celebration 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
On February 3, Iran successfully launched its first entirely homemade satellite. The satellite, called Omid ("hope"), was carried by a Safir 2 rocket from the space center in Semnan province, southeast of Teheran. The launch was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. The Omid is a small research satellite. According to Iranian spokesmen, it carries telecommunications and telemetry equipment, as well as what is referred to as remote sensory devices and a geographic information system. From this it can be concluded that the satellite also carries a small camera. It entered orbit at an altitude of 252.7-384.5 kilometers, with an inclination of 55 degrees, and orbits the earth once every 90.8 minutes. Iran said the satellite was scheduled to remain in orbit for about three months. Western monitoring stations that measured its orbit estimated that it would return to the atmosphere in June or July. The satellite's weight is unknown, but probably does not exceed a few dozen kilograms. The satellite is undoubtedly a great success for Teheran. Its launch demonstrates that the Iranian space industry possesses extremely impressive technological capabilities, mostly in missile technology. The Safir 2 is a liquid fuel-powered two-stage satellite launcher (it may also have a small third stage for putting the satellite into orbit). Its successful use demonstrates the capability to fire, manage and separate the rocket stages. It also shows an independent capability to construct, launch and control satellites. Iranian spokesmen stressed that the Omid was designed for research and was not a military satellite, and furthermore that the entire Iranian satellite program was for peaceful purposes. They took the opportunity to describe Iran's plans in outer space for the near and distant future. In the context of these plans, the Omid functions mainly as an experimental satellite to prepare the way for a series of satellites of various types scheduled for launch in the coming decade. The most ambitious goal presented was sending an Iranian astronaut into space by 2021. Plans in the short term include the Mesbah satellite built for Teheran by an Italian company, which was originally scheduled for launch in 2005. Development of the Besharat, a joint satellite project of Iran and all the member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was also announced. Western commentators quickly voiced great concern about the Omid launch. A White House spokesman expressed concern that Teheran was threatening the security of Israel by launching the satellite, and said the US was not convinced that Iran was acting responsibly to promote stability in the region. Similar sentiments were voiced in London, Paris and, needless to say, Israel. The real concern is that satellite launch technology is similar to that required to launch ballistic missiles. A missile capable of carrying a load of several dozen kilograms is also capable of carrying several hundred kilograms for distances of thousands of kilometers. This means that Iran can threaten Western Europe. Although this assessment is technologically correct, and despite the fact that Iran's hostile attitude toward Israel means that Jerusalem must prepare for the possibility, however unlikely, that these launchers will be used for military purposes, it is important to also present counter arguments. First, satellite launchers are not military missiles. They are complex, cumbersome and require lengthy preparation for launch. They are also usually not made in large production series, because there is no need to establish an operational inventory. Second, from an organizational perspective, the satellite project probably belongs to a civilian entity, not a military one. The person most interviewed following the Omid launch was Iran Aerospace Industries Organization head Reza Taghipour, not Minister of Defense Mostafa Mohammad Najjar. Third, Iran appears genuinely interested in an advanced satellite program. Beyond the benefit derived from satellites - in both civilian spheres such as locating resources, dealing with natural disasters, telecommunications and so on, and in military applications, such as imagery intelligence gathering - the very existence of the program involves an extremely important element of prestige. It demonstrates Iran's technological superiority, in comparison with other countries in the region, its ability to compete on equal terms with developed Western countries (Europe and the US), and its consequent ability to challenge Israel's technological superiority. Finally, Iran has had a military missile program for a long time, and the range of its Shihab-3 missile has covered Israel for at least a decade. From this standpoint, the inherent threat of the solid-fuel Sejil missile, whose first trial took place in November and is probably designed for military purposes, is much more serious than the direct threat stemming from the Iranian space program. Yiftah Shapir is head of the Middle East Military Balance project at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.