Iran's Satellite Launch a Signal of Missile Progress, Analysts Say
WASHINGTON - Iran?s launch of a satellite into orbit last week will likely give U.S. and European leaders greater cause for concern that the Islamic republic is approaching the ability to field long-range ballistic missiles while its nuclear program continues to progress, analysts here agreed.
The Iranian government-sponsored Islamic Republic News Agency reported Feb. 3 that Iran had launched a research satellite called Omid into orbit aboard a Safir-2 rocket. This is Iran?s first domestically produced satellite to reach orbit and the first to successfully launch on an Iranian-built launch vehicle, according to Press TV, an Iranian government-sponsored news outlet.
The U.S. government, while not explicitly confirming Iran has launched a satellite, has expressed concern that Iran?s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis to develop long-range ballistic missile systems.
?Iran?s ongoing efforts to develop its missile delivery capabilities remain a matter of deep concern,? U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a Feb. 3 statement. ?Many of the technological building blocks involved in [space launch vehicles] are the same as those required to develop long-range ballistic missiles. ? We will continue with our friends and allies in the region to address the threats posed by Iran, including those related to its missile and nuclear programs and its support of terrorism.?
Satellite watchers using orbital data provided from U.S. Strategic Command?s space surveillance network said the satellite is in an elliptical orbit that ranges from 242 kilometers to 382 kilometers in altitude, at an inclination of 55 degrees relative to the equator. Ted Molczan, an amateur satellite observer, said the satellite and part of the rocket that took it to space are both cataloged by Strategic Command and in similar orbits. The satellite appears to be tumbling, as its brightness in the sky changes rapidly, indicating the satellite?s likely lack of a stabilization or attitude control system. Both the satellite and rocket body are likely to begin to deorbit this summer, Molczan said.
?Dear people of Iran, your children have sent Iran?s first domestic satellite into orbit,? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Press TV. ?May this be a step toward justice and peace. Iran?s official presence in space has been added to the pages of history.?
Meanwhile, Iran continues to develop its nuclear program, which it says it has the right to develop for peaceful civil uses as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Iran argues it needs nuclear power and will not use the technology to make weapons. The United Nations Security Council, which includes permanent members China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, has urged Iran to suspend the program numerous times to no avail.
?This [Iranian satellite launch] I think highlights the dual-use issue again, just as the nuclear issue does, and that is technology can be used for peaceful purposes or for weapons that can threaten other countries,? said Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a think tank here. ?In terms of any kind of direct missile threat [to the United States], it?s likely to be many years before they could have that capability. The people worrying more are others in the Middle East and Europe.?
Carpenter said perhaps even more unsettling than the Iranian satellite launch are recent media reports that North Korea is again preparing to launch its three-stage Taepodong-2 missile, which some believe will have the range to reach U.S. territory. North Korea tested one of these missiles in 2006, but it failed shortly after launch and broke apart in the air.
?North Korea poses a much more direct threat to the United States because if it is true North Korea is planning to test an advanced version of the Taepodong-2, that could put Alaska and the U.S. west coast in range,? Carpenter said.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the United States and Europe ought to be concerned about the progression of Iranian technology. He argued that Iran is more of a threat to the United States than North Korea, based on Tehran?s backing of insurgents in Iraq.
?That has been a capability we have seen Iran developing, but the fact that it now has actually happened is a jarring punctuation mark,? Donnelly said. ?Given what we believe about their nuclear program, it seems pretty clear they?re very close to having a complete, deliverable weapon that would have the ability to reach out to Europe.?
Michael O?Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here, said though the Iranian satellite launch may not show an increase in the physical range of Iranian weapon systems, it is perhaps a more impressive display of technological prowess than a missile test launch would have been.
?That suggests a certain amount of control and guidance mastery,? O?Hanlon said. ?You?ve got to hit a fairly narrow band to put something in orbit, and the simple act of firing a missile doesn?t tell you anything about how close the missile landed to its target.
?It demonstrates more sophistication than I would have assumed, but I am not surprised they did this.?
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