Defense analysts downplay Iran research rocket launch

Teheran unveils 'space center' to send up satellites.

iran rocket 224.88 (photo credit: )
iran rocket 224.88
(photo credit: )
Defense analysts downplayed Iranian claims on Monday that it has launched a rocket into space capable of carrying research satellites. State-run television in Teheran said the rocket was the first fired by Iran "into space," but analysts said it looked exactly like a standard Iranian Shihab 3 ballistic missile, which was incapable of taking more than 30 kilograms into space. Satellites usually weight hundreds of kilograms. Iran launched its first domestically built rocket last February; it reached the edge of space but did not reach orbit level. Monday's report did not specify the altitude reached by the research rocket, but state TV showed live images of the liftoff from the space center, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issuing the launch order. Before the launch, Ahmadinejad opened the space center, which includes an underground control station and space launch pad, according to state TV. "We need to have an active and influential presence in space," Ahmadinejad said. Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at Israel's Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Studies in Herzliya, raised the possibility Monday that Iran's space program was a cover to develop military-grade ballistic missiles. He said international treaties placed tight restrictions on the overt development of long-range two-stage ballistic missiles. "The traditional way to get around this restriction is to develop a space program and then to use the space missiles for military purposes," Inbar said. "It looks like a regular Shihab and the difference was the color of the missile - a Shihab is usually green and the one launched Monday was white." Inbar also cast doubt on Ahmadinejad's claim that Iran had succeeded in developing its first domestically built satellite, called Omid, or Hope. Iran currently has one satellite in space called Sina, launched in 2005 by Russia. Inbar said Sina was not advanced and had only low-resolution image capabilities. State TV said Omid took 10 years to build, and the official news agency IRNA reported that it would be sent into orbit sometime in roughly the next 12 months. "The research rocket is part of preparations for the launch of a satellite into orbit," said IRNA. Iranian officials have said the country wants to launch a satellite on an indigenous rocket and indicated they are developing a Shahab-4 missile to do that. Iran's powerful ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, is believed to have a range of at least 1,300 km., putting Israel and much of the Middle East in range. In November, Iran said it had manufactured a new missile, the Ashoura, with a range of 2,000 km., capable of reaching US bases in the Middle East. Iran hopes to launch four more satellites by 2010, the government has said, to increase the number of its land and mobile telephone lines to 80 million from 22 million. It also hopes to expand its satellite capabilities to increase Internet users to 35 million from 5.5 million. AP contributed to this report.