Iran has converted its most powerful ballistic missile into a satellite launch vehicle. The 30-ton rocket could also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for testing longer-range missile strike technologies, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reports in its Jan. 29 issue.
The Iranian space launcher has recently been assembled and “will liftoff soon” with an Iranian satellite, according to Alaoddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.
The move toward an independent space launch capacity is likely to ratchet up concern in the U.S. and Europe about Iran’s strategic capabilities and intents. Orbiting its own satellite would send a powerful message throughout the Muslim world about the Shiite regime in Tehran.
U.S. agencies believe the launcher to be a derivation of the 800-1,000-mi. range Shahab 3 missile. A Shahab 3 fired from central Iran could strike anywhere in Israel, Saudi Arabia, the entire Persian Gulf region and as far west as southern Turkey.
There are concerns in the West that space launch upgrades, however, could eventually create an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of nearly 2,500 mi., giving Tehran the ability to strike as far as central Europe, well into Russia and even China and India.
The U. S. Defense Intelligence Agency has told the Congress that Iran may be capable of developing a 3,000-mi. range ICBM by 2015.
“But ultimately, their space program aims to orbit reconnaissance satellites like Israel’s “Ofek,” using an Iranian satellite launcher from Iranian territory, says Uzi Rubin, the former head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization. Rubin made his assessment in a report for The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“A reconnaissance satellite of reasonable performance should weigh about 300 kg. [660 lb.] Once Iran learns how to put 300 kg. into earth orbit, it could adapt the satellite launcher into an ICBM that could drop more than 300 kg anywhere in the world.
Boroujerdi’s made his remarks about the imminent Iranian launch in a speech before a group of religious students and clerics in the city of Qom near where Iran has conducted some of its ballistic missile tests. Iran is now in the midst of military exercises that include a series of shorter-range missile tests, Iranian officials say.
Although designed as a technology demonstrator, the planned satellite launch would be a potent political and emotional weapon in the Middle East.
The new space launcher and ongoing missile development is also significant in that it highlights close technological ties between the Iranian and North Korean missiles programs, intelligence agencies agree.
Analysts at the strategic think tank GlobalSecurity.org believe that the new Iranian modification could be a stepping stone to an Iranian clone of the North Korean Taep’O-Dong 2C/3 ballistic missile that failed in a launch attempt from North Korea last July 4.
A November 2006 Congressional Research Service report reinforced concerns over Iranian and North Korean missile development ties. It notes that Israel’s military intelligence chief has information indicating that North Korea has shipped to Iran eighteen 1,500 mi. range BM-25 ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
“Largely with foreign help, Iran is becoming self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles,” says the report’s author, Kenneth Katzman. And he reminds that a 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy Document notes, “The United States may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran.”