Iran's space program: The next genie in a bottle?

Iran's endeavor mimics a pattern other countries use clandestinely to advance their missile programs.

magic lamp 88 (photo credit: )
magic lamp 88
(photo credit: )
Excerpt from MERIA Journal, a project of the GLORIA Center: External support continues to help advance Iran's space effort. Teheran is advancing its space program to satisfy numerous civil and military objectives, including manufacturing satellites to accurately guide its Shahab ballistic missiles. The United States and Israel remain gravely concerned about Iranian efforts to gain more military power. The Iranian space endeavor mimics a disturbing pattern other countries use clandestinely to advance their long-range missile programs. Iran might reengineer the Shahab to carry future satellites and try to obtain significant political rewards from future satellite launches. Exploiting this event would unite Iran politically, complicating Washington's regional objective, and further destabilizing the region. In slightly different ways and to varying degrees of success, China, North Korea, and Pakistan use a civil space program clandestinely to manufacture longer-range missiles to further safeguard national security. Iran seeks to become a space power for similar reasons. Unlike other Islamic countries with satellites, the Iranian defense ministry plays a prominent role in shaping the space effort with possible contributions from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). This military component manages the Shahab ballistic missile program, which Iran might modify into a space launch vehicle (SLV) with foreign support. Enhancing the Shahab to become satellite-guided would allow Iran to strike Israel and United States military forces stationed throughout the region precisely. Statements from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared his intention to "wipe Israel off the map" and dismissed the United States as a "hollow superpower," heighten the level of tension. Iran might seek to develop a space program to improve national pride. Successfully testing a launch vehicle would allow Iran to boast that it is a space power. The propaganda Teheran espouses following this event might unite the country. This would further legitimize Ahmadinejad's policies and rhetoric, and generate greater regional and international fear regarding the regime's intentions. Iranian efforts to exploit space began under the Shah, who tried to improve his country's scientific standing. In 1959, Teheran became a founding member of the United Nations' Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS). The United Nations' General Assembly requested that UNCOPUOS review international collaborative programs to exploit space for civil purposes, serve as a forum for information exchanges, and encourage the development and facilitate the advancement of national programs to study outer space. The fact that Iranian efforts to exploit space started over thirty years ago demonstrates that the country put a premium on further understanding this arena. Iran built a facility to obtain photographs soon after the United States launched the first system designed to capture imagery of the Earth. The Iranian Remote Sensing Center (IRSC) is responsible for gathering, processing, and distributing relevant material to users throughout the country for resource planning and management. The IRSC helps officials determine suitable areas to develop, and its personnel maintained operations while the country experienced a revolution and a devastating conflict with neighboring Iraq. Partly as a response to Iran's eight-year war of attrition against Iraq, Iranians wanted to improve their political, social, and economic standing. As such, the people elected the pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and later, the reformist Muhammad Khatami as president. These leaders wanted to further modernize the country partly with more Western financial assistance. To encourage greater Western support, both presidents diminished the fundamentalists' influence. Khatami issued various reforms to modernize the country including reinvigorating efforts for the nation to become more active in space. He helped the country to view becoming a space power as a vehicle for modernity. Possessing images and other types of material from space will assist Teheran in identifying areas suitable for development and those to be avoided because of their susceptibility to earthquakes and floods. Iran attempted partially to do that by manufacturing satellites. On January 5, 2003, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the country's former defense minister, stated that within eighteen months, "Iran will be the first Islamic country to penetrate the stratosphere with its own satellite and with its own launch system." According to Shamkhani, the satellite launch would be in response to American actions. "The Persian Gulf was once a place from which constant threats against the Islamic Republic emanated. But now, with the resources that we are gaining, this region cannot be used against us by any outside force." When he made this announcement, Teheran figured it was the next target after coalition forces met their objectives in Iraq. That has yet to occur, but Iran still seeks a space capability partly because of America's growing regional presence. Developing these programs in response to the increased United States presence indicates that Iran feels threatened and partly seeks to exploit space to safeguard its own national security. Iran apparently attempted to meet some of these goals starting in April 2003. The legislature approved a bill to create the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) to serve as a policy-formulating organization for space initiatives. The ISA performs research on technology such as remote sensing projects, develops national space equipment, and participates in the development of national and international space endeavors. It also coordinates various space-related activities within the country's research institutes, administrative agencies, and universities. These efforts also help the ISA to execute decisions from the Supreme Aerospace Council. Iran's legislature created this body in December 2003 to approve various space-related programs and to promote partnerships among other organizations. The council functions with input from senior government officials. The ISA's director serves as the council's secretary, and the country's president functions as chairman. Reorganizing the Iranian aerospace sector can help the country more effectively consolidate resources to advance various space efforts, such as launching satellites aboard indigenously developed SLVs. Nasser Maleki, former deputy director of the Iranian aerospace organization, acknowledged that the same technology used to manufacture missiles could also be used to manufacture SLVs. Building an SLV based on ballistic missile technology has distinct advantages: lower cost, less time needed for training, and less likelihood of international scrutiny because the same technology can apply to manufacturing the SLV. These benefits might explain why Iran seeks to deploy its satellites onboard indigenously-manufactured SLVs. Teheran will likely do that by modifying its road-mobile, single-stage, liquid propellant Shahab ballistic missile. On February 7, 1999, Shamkhani, acknowledged his country's plans to construct an SLV, the Shahab-4, indigenously. His statement marked the first time an Iranian government official publicly admitted that the country considered developing an SLV for civil purposes. The author is a defense contractor in McLean, Virginia.