Did Iran nuke delivery capability just leap forward? - analysis

IRGC satellite launch catches world by surprise

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna (photo credit: REUTERS/ LEONHARD FOEGER)
An Iranian flag flutters in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna
When Iran’s satellite launch failed to stay in orbit and eventually crashed in February, Israel and the West breathed a sigh of relief.
Everyone may have relaxed too soon.
If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ launch of a “military” satellite on Wednesday was as successful as they say, many analysts are saying it could be a significant leap forward in its capability to deliver a nuclear weapon – once Iran decides to cross the nuclear threshold.
Many others are countering that Tehran exaggerates its abilities and that delivering a nuclear weapon requires mastering multiple skills, some of which even a successful satellite launch do not address.
There are many issues the Islamic Republic would need to master to be able to fire a nuclear weapon, but the two biggest ones frequently discussed are enriching and weaponizing enough uranium and surmounting the obstacles to deliver a nuclear bomb.
Former Mossad official and current INSS Iran analyst Sima Shine said that if the information is accurate, “this would go along with a series of achievements which Iran publicized around its April 10 military day.”
She added that the character of “the announcement and the emphasis on the intelligence and military sides of it were designed to strengthen Iran’s image and are important in this period when tensions have grown again with the US.”
“Whoever thought corona would impact [Iranian] policy…Iran has explained it will not!”
In May 2018, nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis discussed the possibility of Iran using space launches to master the process in detail with The Jerusalem Post after his Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey announced major new findings in a New York Times story.
In April 2019, David Schmerler wrote an extensive update on the issue in Arms Control Wonk. That update was based on high frequency 3 meter imagery which Schmerler, Lewis and others are using to monitor certain Iranian sites of interests on a daily basis.
Collectively, the findings were that Iran might have been hiding an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile testing site in plain view, until Lewis and his group figured it out while watching public Iranian TV and obtained new photos of the area.
ICBMs could threaten Europe and the US and the Trump administration has tried to use the issue, mostly unsuccessfully, to unite more countries against Iran in the ongoing nuclear standoff.
Lewis told the Post that, “Iran was striving for a large space launcher like India’s PSLV [Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle] and the test stands are for very large engines, consistent with a rocket that could deliver a nuclear-weapons sized payload to ICBM ranges.”
This was, Lewis noted, “the same path India took [to developing a nuclear ICBM capability]: Develop a large space launch vehicle, then transition to technologies to a smaller ICBM.” 
Like many other technologies Iran has experimented with, this space launch testing has a dual use, one of them being a nuclear ICBM.
Regarding the civilian versus military dichotomy, former top CIA Iran official Norman Roule tweeted on Wednesday, “It is unlikely that the launch of a military satellite is in response to [the] U.S. pressure campaign. U.S. has argued for years that Iran's space launch vehicles would be used by Iran's military. Iran repeatedly claimed that space programs were for non-military purposes.”
“Military satellite programs take years to plan, resource, & develop; announced only ready and ground systems in place,” he said emphasizing the significance of the launch.
Roule also said, “Iran’s announcement of the military role of this launch was a mistake as it justifies U.S. sanctions on its space program. Although such use is unsurprising, the claim reinforces arguments that international restrictions on Iran’s missile program should not be lifted.”
Despite the seriousness of the launch, Roule tweeted that, “Also, Tehran likely exaggerating payload capability as it exaggerates other military capabilities,” and made it clear that he did not view the launch as a leap forward.
Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright responded to the launch saying, “First, the US postponed its military satellite launch scheduled for April, as would be expected. Iran appears determined to push forward with advancing military capabilities at the expense of its own people.”
“In terms of capabilities, if the missile got the satellite stage to the right altitude and location, it would be an indication of achieving longer-range ballistic missile capabilities, key to the development of a long-range nuclear weapons delivery system,” he said.
Yet despite that accomplishment, Albright said, “It does not tell us anything about a re-entry vehicle that could carry a nuclear warhead to a distant target. Progress on nuclear capable re-entry vehicles is hard to gauge absent a flight test of a missile with one.”
So the jury is still out on what exactly the IRGC accomplished on Wednesday, but a successful launch replacing past failed launches does shift expectations about potential Iranian nuclear capabilities going forward.