On Tuesday [February 3] with great domestic fanfare, Iran put its first satellite, called Omid, into orbit. But to leaders and analysts in the west, the satellite launch represents a forward step in Iran's apparent quest to be both nuclear capable and able to deliver a warhead on target.
Just days ago, Iran joined the nations who have a presence in space. The satellite Iran put in orbit has heightened concerns in Washington and elsewhere about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In October, 1957, the then-Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik. Overnight, the West was forced to face the reality that if Moscow could put a satellite in orbit, it could also put a nuclear warhead on target.
Today, many analysts say they believe Iran appears to be focused both on nuclear weapons and missile capability. The motivation, they say, is self-protection, which is usually called "deterrence."
"They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded by nuclear states - Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and the United States," The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione explains.
But at the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs framed Iran's space launch as potentially aggressive. "This action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region," he said.
Israel has been able since the early 1980's to reach at least part of Iran with its Jericho II missiles. And many analysts say a longer range version is being developed. Diplomatic experts say, to Iran's leaders that is a justification to become nuclear capable.
But reaching deterrence with Israel or any state is, perhaps, still years away according to nuclear analyst David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
"Iran has a formidable challenge to be able to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile," Albright said. "If the missile is going to be small, then it has an even greater challenge, because the nuclear warhead has to be small. And it can be very difficult, particularly for a country like Iran to actually make a warhead small enough to fit on a small missile."
Iran continues to complete its nuclear reactor at Bushehr with Russian assistance.
The Bushehr facility is visible. But much of Iran's nuclear program is hidden behind a wall of denials, though there are some structures in Natanz and Arak that have been identified by experts as strongly resembling nuclear facilities.
Though the International Atomic Energy Agency is not allowed to conduct on-site verifications, western powers suspect Iran is planning to use enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons.
Senior defense analyst Anthony Cordesman outlines what is known:
- "Iran officially denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons."
- "It is also moving forward with centrifuges which can be used to produce nuclear weapons materials."
- "It is moving forward with a heavy water reactor, which is a way of producing plutonium that cannot be controlled."
The United Nations, with strong U.S. and European Union backing, have imposed three rounds of sanctions. But Iran has refused to comply with demands to halt its nuclear program.
Joseph Cirincione is one of a number of analysts who see three options:
- "One is military attack. Most experts agree that would damage the program. But, it might actually accelerate it, and it would certainly start a third war in the Middle East.
- "The second is sanctions. Try to convince Iran that unless it stops the program, its economy will grind to a halt. There is no evidence that will succeed."
- "The third is engagement, to actually negotiate with Iran, and use some of the pressure of sanctions, but also, provide the incentives. We have not tried that yet. While the Europeans have been engaged in talks, it is really the United States that is the key."
But Cirincione and others say that the upcoming elections in Iran, and the desire by its leaders to continue to portray the United States as the enemy, will likely prevent or dampen any official response for now to President Barack Obama's recent overtures.