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Iran eyes 'the high ground: Tehran moves closer to joining the space race and putting satellites into orbit, a breakthrough that could give it intercontinental ballistic missiles.

ISRAEL'S AIR FORCE commander, Major General Eliezer Shdeky, warned earlier in the year that the Jewish state faces a threat to its military and commercial satellites in the coming decade. His comments followed China's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in January that destroyed an ageing weather satellite and heightened the prospect of an arms race in space, the 'high ground' of military strategy in recent years.

But Israel, the only Middle Eastern power with its own indigenous satellites and the capability of launching them into orbit, faces an emerging threat in space from much closer to home: Iran, whose nuclear and missile programmes Israel sees as an existential threat.

Iranian leaders have boasted for several years that the Islamic Republic was close to launching its own satellites using Iranian rockets, but so far the only satellite Tehran has in orbit was made in Russia and lofted into space aboard a Russian launch vehicle in 2005. Iran has simply not had the technology to make its own satellites or launch them itself.

However, in January, Alaoddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, was quoted by the Iranian media as saying that Iran had built a surveillance satellite and converted one of its "most powerful missiles" to a space launch vehicle (SLV) to put satellites in orbit. A launch, he said, would take place "soon".

The missile in question would probably be the Shehab-3 intermediate-range ballistic weapon developed by Iran, and frequently linked to Iran's space programme. However, some Israeli sources suggest it could be one of 18 BM25 ballistic missiles Tehran reportedly purchased from North Korea two years ago.

On 25 February, Ali Akbar Golrou of Iran's Aerospace Research Centre announced that the Islamic Republic had launched a sub-orbital 'research rocket' that reached an altitude of about 150km and returned to Earth by parachute. The research payload, he said, was "created by the Iran Aerospace Research Centre and the Defence Ministry".

No details of the reported launch were released and there was no footage of it broadcast on state-run television as there usually is for such events. No western state has confirmed tracking such a test-firing. Following Boroujerdi's hint of a more dramatic breakthrough in Iran's secretive missile programme, the reported rocket launch was something of an anti-climax.

But launching these so-called 'sounding rockets' is seen as a precursor to an eventual spaceshot, which in turn would signal a technological breakthrough in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The rockets are used to investigate atmospheric conditions between 45km and 160km, between the maximum altitude for weather balloons and the lowest for orbiting satellites.

The day before Golrou's announcement, Iranian Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted by the Etemad-e Melli daily as saying: "Building a satellite and satellite launcher ... and becoming a member of the space club are part of the Defence Ministry's plans." Science and Technology Minister Mohammad Soleimani added: "Investment in space is very serious and requires time, but we're trying to speed it up."

All this, amid a frenzy of missile test-firings in recent months as tension swelled between Iran and the US over its nuclear programme and alleged intervention in Iraq, was written off in some quarters as propaganda to bolster national morale.

But to military analysts it appeared that Iran had moved a step closer to putting its own satellites into space, which would provide it with real-time surveillance of potential targets for its ballistic missiles as well as improve guidance systems to provide greater accuracy.

Lt Gen Henry Obering, head of the US Defence Department's Missile Defence Agency, has said that Tehran is pulling out all the stops to develop multi-stage, long-range missiles, including an SLV project that can be used as cover for ballistic missile programmes.

"We see what's happening right now in Iran," Obering said. "We know that they have a very aggressive test programme that they've demonstrated in public and they've avowed themselves that they're going to obtain a space launch capability."

Once Tehran succeeds in developing an SLV, Obering observed, it "will have demonstrated all the basic building blocks for a long-range ICBM capability in terms of staging, controlling a vehicle through the staging and burns. All indications are that they are working to be able to achieve that."

A 2006 study of Iran's space programme by the Israel-based Middle East Review of International Affairs noted that "Iran's efforts to advance its space programme follow an unsettling pattern seen elsewhere. In slightly different ways and to varying degrees of success, China, North Korea and Pakistan use a civil space programme clandestinely to manufacture longer range missiles to further safeguard national security. Iran seeks to become a space power for similar reasons.

"The United States and its allies find the Iranian space endeavour threatening. Iran seeks to build satellites to improve the military's ability to target potential enemies and to closely monitor the region." It concluded: "The space programme is important to Iran because it views becoming a space power as a vehicle for survival against perceived external dangers."

Iranian leaders have insisted they do not plan to develop ballistic systems beyond Shehab-3, and that Shehab-4 was solely intended as an SLV to be used for peaceful purposes. It is unlikely that Iran has made the technological breakthrough that would enable it to build and launch sophisticated military satellites on its own.

But it has relied heavily on North Korea for help on the Shehab programme and Pyongyang's missile programme has sometimes taken the world by surprise. On 31 August 1998, it launched a re-engineered Taepodong-1 ballistic missile in an attempt to put a satellite into orbit without any giveaway flight testing first.

The second and third stages separated successfully and the missile reached orbital velocity, but the attempt failed because the third-stage booster malfunctioned. Nevertheless, the event demonstrated that the technological leap from single-stage missile to multi-stage booster was feasible in such secretive programmes.

Israel, meanwhile, has suffered major setbacks in developing its own space programme. Three of its six Ofeq (Horizon) reconnaissance satellites were lost due to failures in the Shavit launch vehicle, Jane's Defence Weekly reports that Israel has now developed a new SLV that is an improvement over the three-stage, solid-propellant Shavit variant used so far. Ofeq-7 is now due for launch some time this year to spy on Iran and Iraq. Ofeq-3, the first spy satellite in the series, was launched in 1995.

Even if Iran was able to make that kind of leap itself, the consensus seems to be that it will not be able to master the technology to weld its nuclear, ballistic missile and space efforts into a cohesive military programme for some time, possibly several years.

Tehran is apparently determined to develop a multi-stage SLV. Achieving that is one step away from being able to produce an ICBM with a range of up to 4,000km, capable of reaching pretty much anywhere in the region and central Europe, deep inside Russia and as far as China and India.

Israel, the Middle East's only nuclear power and which has the most advanced ballistic missile programme in the region, converted its long-range Jericho ballistic missile into a launch vehicle that became known as the Shavit. US scientists estimate that the multi-stage Jericho-3 could carry a nuclear warhead up to 6,500km.

The Iranians seem to be trying to do the same thing with Shehab-3, a single-stage system powered by liquid propellant that was originally modelled on North Korea's No-Dong missile. In September 2000, the Iranian government announced that a modified two-stage version, the Shehab-3D, had been flight-tested with liquid and solid propellants.

The drive to develop a multi-stage missile, the Shehab-4, for use as a space launch vehicle to put indigenous military satellites into orbit, has reportedly been accelerated in recent months.

US concerns about Tehran's burgeoning ballistic capabilities are seen as the primary reason for the Pentagon's effort to establish ground-based anti-missile interceptor bases in Poland and the Czech Republic since these states lie along the trajectory for missiles, which might be fired from Iran towards the US.
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Comment:Iran eyes 'the high ground: Tehran moves closer to joining the space race and putting satellites into orbit, a breakthrough that could give it intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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