Iran’s Space Program A Stepping Stone to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles?

While the Iranian nuclear and missile program have received relatively little coverage in recent weeks, things may well be heating up again.

Here’s the latest from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Iran:

…and here’s what Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had to say in response:

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Mike Pompeo’s latest threats follow this warning from the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany following the launch of the Simorgh space launch vehicle in July 2017:

Actually, Iran does have a space launch program.  In fact, Iran became the first Islamic nation and ninth nation overall to launch its own payload into space.  It’s space program is a collaboration between research organizations, industry, the government and universities and may have receive foreign assistance.

Iran currently has three Space Launch Vehicle (SLV)  types:

1.) the Safir (Envoy or Ambassador)  was used to launch the OMID satellite into orbit in February 2009 with the first unsuccessful test taking place on August 17, 2008.  It is a liquid-fuelled, two-stage, 22 metre long SLV with the first stage based on a single-stage Shahab-3 medium range ballistic missile. It is designed to carry a light payload into low-earth orbit and is not considered to be capable of providing a long-range nuclear weapons capability.  The second generation Safir-1B is capable of putting a 100 kilogram payload into low earth orbit.

Here is a video showing the launching of the Safir-2 rocket:

2.) the Simorgh (Phoenix) was launched on July 27, 2017.  This liquid-fuelled, four-engine rocket, 27 metre long is capable of putting a heavier satellite weighing up to 100 kilograms into low-earth orbit.  The launch 2017 launch carried a satellite and it is believed that it exploded after launch, never achieving orbit.

Here is the launching of the Simorgh rocket in July 2017:

3.) the Kavoshgar (Explorer) was launched on February 4, 2008.  This sounding rocket is not intended for satellite launchings and, after reaching an altitude of 100 kilometres, the payload separates and returns to earth on a parachute.  The three launches of the Kavoshgar have been of questionable success. 

Iran currently has four launch sites; Emamshahr in northeastern Iran, Semnan (part of the Iranian Spacer Research Center) in northeaster Iran, Qom in western Iran and a new site located 6.5 miles west of Semnan which is designed for the Simorgh launch vehicle.  Iran launched its first entirely domestic satellite, Omid (Hope), on February 3, 2009.  The Omid is a small research satellite that is in orbit at a height of 252.7 to 384.5 kilometres. Similar to recent protestations by Washington, the White House was concerned that Iran was threatening the security of Israel by launching Omid.

Here is an complete listing of Iran’s indigenous satellites:

Obviously, like other nations around the world, Iran’s domestic satellite program is important to the nation and its domestic space program allows it to continue to do research that it might otherwise not be able to do since it has been subjected to a series of international sanctions.

Here are quotes from the Congressional Research Service and the Federation of American Scientists in August 2018 on Iran’s Space Launch Vehicle program and the possibility of it being used to test an intercontinental ballistic missile:

Some have long believed Iran’s space launch program could mask the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with ranges in excess of 5,500 km that could threaten targets throughout Europe, and even the United States (at least 10,000 km). According to the intelligence community (IC) in 2018, “Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an ICBM. Progress on Iran’s space program, such as the launch of the Simorgh SLV in July 2017, could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.”

ICBMs share many similar technologies and processes inherent in a space launch program, but many years ago Iran outlined a long-term dedicated space launch effort (that has since slowed considerably) that is not simply a cover for ICBM development. In addition, no country has developed an ICBM from its space launch technology base; space launch programs have generally developed from military ballistic missile programs.

In 1999, the IC first assessed that Iran could test an ICBM by 2015 if it received sufficient foreign assistance, especially from a country such as China or Russia (whose support reportedly subsequently diminished in the 2000s). CRS assessed in 2012 that it was “increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015 for several reasons: Iran does not appear to be receiving the degree of foreign support many believe would be necessary; Iran has found it increasingly difficult to acquire certain critical components and materials because of sanctions; and Iran has not demonstrated the kind of flight test program many view as necessary to produce an ICBM.” Those assessments remain valid.” (my bold)

It is believed that Iran’s space launch and satellite program are being used by Iran’s leadership to enhance its national pride and to improve its capabilities to offer its space launch services to other Middle East nations.  Since satellite launchers are complex, cumbersome, require substantial preparations before launchings and are generally not produced in large numbers, their use as a military missile is compromised.  As well, it appears that the entity that produces and launches Iran’s satellites is civilian rather than military 

In closing and for your illumination, not once in United Nations Resolution 2231 is there any mention of Iran’s space program, there are restrictions on the development of ballistic missiles that could be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.  It is also interesting to note that the Congressional Research Service states clearly that “no country has developed an ICBM from its space launch technology base” a conclusion that seems to have evaded Mike Pompeo who appears to be more concerned about forcing regime change in Iran than stepping back from the precipice of war.  As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted:

Threats engender threats while civility begets civility

And, while we are on the topic of nuclear weaponry, let’s not forget that Israel developed its t nuclear arsenal in complete secret, lied to the American government about its existence and still has not revealed its nuclear inventory.  But somehow, that’s different.

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