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Will Iran's Missile Program Take Off?


Iran plans to send two more missiles into space this summer, before putting its own homemade satellite in orbit later this year. The Iranians launched their first missile last month amid international concern over their missile program.

When the missile was launched on February 4, Tehran said it was designed to chart a path for putting its first homemade satellite in orbit. Many observers considered the launch another step toward further developing Iran's medium- and long-range missiles. Others saw it as another building block in the Islamic nation's highly controversial nuclear program.

But many analysts stress that is easier to develop ballistic missiles than it is to put a satellite in space. To do that, GlobalSecurity.org's space expert Charles Vick says Iran would have to develop a more advanced launch vehicle capable of carrying a much heavier payload than what the February missile carried.

"They are going to be capable [of putting a satellite in orbit] once they finish perfecting this launch vehicle. But we have to understand that this is a very light payload -- something under 50 kilograms for an initial satellite -- with a launch vehicle that clearly is an interim launch vehicle designed to develop the technology and the knowledge capability to launch much heavier satellites in the future on a newer, larger launch vehicle that will almost certainly be based on the Taepodong-2C/3 [a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile that failed to launch last year] type capability with their variation on launch vehicle design," says Vick.

Hurdles and Foreign Help

Some analysts point out that Iran probably has the propulsion technology needed to develop rocket engines. But astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts says putting a satellite in space is more complicated.

"That is not all you need to do. You need to be able to steer the rocket, to guide it into the right orbit. You need to be able to separate multiple stages of the rocket. So that there are a lot of hurdles to cross before they actually have a satellite launch vehicle. They have had medium-range missiles for quite a long time. That is the first thing you need," says McDowell. "We developed our own first satellite launch vehicles from our first medium-range missiles. But we had maybe a 50 percent success rate in our first satellite launches. And I think that we will probably see the Iranians have a similar high rate of failures in the early years."

That especially holds true for an Iranian space program cobbled together from technology transfers from countries such as Russia, North Korea, China, Pakistan and South Africa. GlobalSecurity.org's Charles Vick says Iran's Explorer-1 rocket betrays that mixed heritage. The rocket, he adds, is derived from Iran's Ghadr-1 and Shahab-3B missiles, both of which are based on North Korea's No-Dong-A medium-range ballistic missile.

"But it is also the basis of the forthcoming Safir launch vehicle, which Iran may also have launched on or around the Fourth of February that may not have worked successfully. But they are talking about launching one [rocket] between May 21 and June 8 to [prepare to] place a satellite in earth orbit in the latter part of this year, once they finish perfecting the launch vehicle," says Vick.

Why Launch?

Iran's first satellite was manufactured and deployed by Russia in 2005. Now, many analysts question why Iran needs to launch its own satellites. James Phillips of The Heritage Foundation says the Iranians would like to have this ability as a matter of prestige and national pride. But he suspects they may have exaggerated their capabilities and may not be able to launch their own satellite for at least five years.

"There is no reason they need to put up their own satellites. They would like to have the capability to hit targets farther away and I think that is why they are using this -- to suggest that their missile program is for purely peaceful reasons. I think they would like to get an operating spy satellite. But I doubt that their present satellite capability is very well developed at all. So I think probably in the short-run, it [i.e., Iran's space program] is more important for military ballistic missile programs than for intelligence purposes," says Phillips.

Most analysts agree, although few expect Iran's enhanced capabilities to significantly change the balance of power in the Middle East in the near-term. Among them is Alex Vatanka, Security Editor for Jane's Intelligence and Defense Group in Virginia, who notes that Iran wants to have the ability to launch its own vehicles in order to project itself as a self-reliant, regional power.

"It is a sign that Iran is continuing [on] this path of trying to gain strength militarily. It will not happen overnight. But if they continue on this track, obviously, in years and perhaps decades to come, one could imagine an Iran that is far more powerful militarily and also independent of Western security guarantees that most Arab neighboring states benefit from," says Vatanka.

Growing Concerns

Iran's February launch revealed nothing new, although many analysts worry about its implications, especially for the country's missile programs. Of particular concern to GlobalSecurity.org's Charles Vick is Iran's next generation of ballistic missiles.

"Of even greater ominous importance is the introduction of the Ashura-Ghadr-110 three-stage, solid-fuel ballistic missile, which is equivalent to the Shehab-3B, the Ghadr-1 liquid propellent launch vehicle that has been flight-tested and is being produced and deployed," says Vick. "This can also be the build-up to eventually a solid propellent-based space booster or ballistic missile that could be applied to their space program at some point."

Vick cautions against reading too much into Iran's space program. But he warns that the hardware and technology of Iran's rockets are evolving in ways that would give it the ability to develop strategic long-range missiles capable of reaching many Western countries.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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