Why Iran’s satellite launch failure still threatens Israel, US - analysis

Despite the failure of the Zafar satellite to reach orbit, Sunday's launch shows the Iranians are getting closer.

A model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016 (photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
A model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016
The good news is that Iran’s Sunday satellite launch failed to stay in orbit and eventually crashed.
The bad news is that Tehran may be getting closer to getting it right, because Iran could be trying to use the same path India took to developing nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability: moving from a space launch vehicle to an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In mid-January, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi cited Iran’s need to learn how to fire and deliver a nuclear weapon as a key factor in the timing for when they might potentially develop nuclear weapons.
He believed the Islamic Republic would be around two years away if it took a year to enrich sufficient uranium for a nuclear bomb and another year to master delivery of a nuclear weapon.
Yet, shortly after Kochavi’s statement on the issue, Tehran made claims that it had already enriched 1,200 kg. of low-grade uranium.
While experts have disputed this number to The Jerusalem Post, with many feeling Iran is closer to 800 kg., this is far ahead of where Tehran was expected to be and closer to the 1,000 kg. requirement it needs.
The closer Iran gets to 1,000 kg., the more important it is to watch its progress with mastering the delivery process for a nuclear weapon.
In May 2018, nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis discussed with the Post the possibility of Iran using space launches to master the process in detail, after his Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey announced major new findings in a New York Times story.
In April, David Schmerler wrote an extensive update on the issue in the Arms Control Wonk blog network. That update was based on high frequency three-meter imagery that 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. The Trump administration has tried to use the issue, mostly unsuccessfully, to unite more countries against Iran in the ongoing nuclear standoff.
The Post learned from Lewis and his team that there was strong evidence that tests were being carried out at the site near Shahrud in northeastern Iran, which could lead to Tehran developing the ability to fire nuclear ICBMs globally. Previously, it was thought the site was either defunct or being used to test medium-range missiles.
“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,” Lewis told the Post.
This was, Lewis noted, “the same path India took [to developing nuclear ICBM capability]: Develop a large space launch vehicle, then transition to technologies for 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.
Unlike other dual-use technologies, no one knew the Shahrud site was being used for testing that could help Iran move much faster toward nuclear ICBM capability – until the discovery by Lewis’s team.
Iran nuclear experts have also noted to the Post that the Islamic Republic has had conventional rockets that could reach Israel for decades, so the only question is finding a way to deliver a nuclear weapon. The ICBM program is a concern for both delivering nuclear weapons and for giving Iran the range to strike the US in general.
Iran’s Sunday launch of the Zafar satellite into outer space, which failed to achieve orbit, may be working on different aspects of the track of using space launches to learn about delivering nuclear weapons than some previous launches. But each activity can potentially advance that cause as a whole.
All stages of the Sunday launch took place correctly, and the failure only came when the satellite did not reach the speed needed to inject the satellite into the desired orbit, according to the Iranian Fars News Agency.
NASA said the launch appears to have failed during the second or third stage of the flight when the Simorgh rocket reached the 540-km. trajectory, and was about 1,000 meters per second short of the velocity required to reach orbit.
After an August space launch, Peter Crail wrote in Arms Control Today that the rocket test did demonstrate the connection between Iran’s ballistic missile program and its space program.
He said the two-staged rocket, named Safir (Ambassador), is believed to make use of a modified version of Iran’s most advanced ballistic missile system, the Shahab-3, as its first stage.
The Safir’s second stage appears to use an indigenously developed propulsion system. Crail noted that Iran has not yet successfully tested a multiple-staged missile or rocket.
He noted that the August rocket test followed the launch of two suborbital sounding rockets designed to carry out scientific experiments at high altitudes. The two rockets, launched in February 2007 and February 2008, were also variations of the Shahab-3 missile.
A key element of Sunday’s launch and of the August launch, according to Iranian officials, has been the “homegrown” nature of their technologies.
Crail quoted former UN weapons inspector Geoffrey Forden saying the second stage of the August test showed that “Iran, not North Korea, not Iraq, is the first country to break out of the Scud type of missile mold.”
Many countries in the developing world acquired Scud missiles from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Crail wrote that the missiles have served as the template around which several missile programs have centered. North Korea’s Nodong-1, for example, is based on the Scud design.
None of this proves Iran’s space program is definitely directed at helping it deliver a nuclear weapon, but the large amount of evidence gives Israel and the US serious reasons to worry.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.