Iran: Satellite today, nuke tomorrow?

By Charles Smith

Iran fired a shot heard round the world, but barely a whisper of reaction emerged from Washington. The Iranian launch of a space satellite called Omid – “hope” in Farsi – marked the first real step in Tehran’s construction of a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching America.

The 200-pound satellite was detected entering space along with the remains of the second stage of the Safir-2 rocket that placed it into the 250-mile high orbit. While the Safir-2 is considered a modest launch vehicle for spacecraft, it can serve as the basis for more advanced missiles such as the proposed Shahab-4, which could carry a nuclear payload deep into Europe or even reach the eastern shores of the U.S.

The launch did not come as a surprise to veteran Iran watchers who have been predicting such an event since 2007. In fact, it appears that the successful orbit of Omid may have been the third such attempt by Iran to place a satellite into space.

“The Iranian satellite is a technological achievement for the Iranians and a first step that proves military and intelligence ability and potential,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “This is yet another reason for the international community to tighten and increase sanctions against Iran.”

Defense officials are predicting that Iran would develop a missile capable of striking Europe or the U.S. by 2015. In an article published inside Aviation Week and Space Technology, Tom Ehrhard, a former Air Force strategist who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, stated that the Omid launch indicates a “significant capability.” Ehrhard also stated that during the Cold War, intelligence analysts estimated it would take about five years after launching a satellite for a nation to develop a nuclear-delivery missile.

“I think they are probably on a more aggressive timeline now,” stated Ehrhard. The former USAF analyst noted the satellite launch could be seen as a “wake-up call” to the need for a more cohesive approach to countering the threat, which could include missile defenses in Europe and America.

Meanwhile, the Iranians have made clear their intentions.

“There are now four other satellites being manufactured by Iranian experts,” Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Soleimani was quoted by Mehr News Agency as saying.

“Details about these four satellites will be announced subsequent to their final preparation,” said Soleimani. The Iranian minister also stated that Iran “will try to raise the weight and altitude of the satellites to be launched.”

The Omid test may also come with a potential test of an Iranian bomb in 2009. Such a test would greatly bolster Tehran’s standing in the Muslim world and set off alarm bells inside U.S. allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE and Kuwait.

Even as tensions rise over the Iranian Sputnik – another missile is being readied for launch halfway around the world. In North Korea, preparations are under way for the second launch of a Tae Po Dong II missile – this time from a new launch facility located on the western coast of the DPRK.

The first attempt by North Korea to fire a Tae Po Dong II missile failed when the rocket exploded only a minute into its flight. The Tae Po Dong II is reportedly capable of launching a warhead deep into Alaska or as far as the West Coast of the U.S.

The link between Iran and North Korea is more than just a tenuous one. Both countries share the same primary weapon of their missile arsenals. The North Korean No Dong and Iranians Shahab missiles are in fact nearly identical. The original copies of the Iranian Shahab-3 were exported by North Korea to Iran after being developed by Pyongyang with extensive assistance from Beijing.

Iran purchased the Shahab missile using North Korean technology and No Dong parts to construct its force of missiles. North Korean engineers are currently working inside Iran on both its missile force as well as assisting in the Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

An upgraded Shahab-3 was flight tested four times by the Iranian missile forces between July and October 2004. The U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellite and the USAF Cobra Ball surveillance aircraft monitored the flight tests. In addition, Israeli surveillance aircraft also closely monitored the Iranian launches.

The improved Shahab-3 missile flew at ranges of 930 to 1,240 miles and demonstrated accuracy never seen before by the No-Dong class of missile. The improved Shahab-3 is nearly 60 feet long and reportedly carries 15 percent more propellant than the standard North Korean design.

The Iranian missile has also been improved with what appears to be advanced Chinese nose cone and re-entry vehicle designs. The Shahab-3 now sports a bulbous nose cone system and the flight tests indicated that the simulated warhead carried advanced navigation avionics and re-entry control systems for improved accuracy.

The Bush administration had imposed sanctions against several Chinese companies that were reportedly involved in the upgrade of the Iranian Shahab-3 missile. The Chinese firms were accused of providing the avionics and re-entry control packages now in place on the improved Iranian missile. However, new regulations placed in the final days of the Bush administration have removed those sanctions against China.

According to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, two of the five companies on the list were directly linked to illegal Chinese technology exports.

The Iranian Sputnik and its deep-rooted connections to China and North Korea show that the missile threat to America and her allies has not faded. The Iranian success is predicted to accelerate other space shots, more missile development and even nuclear weapons pointed at America. While many elect to remain silent, the Iranian satellite continues to send its radio signal pulses – a warning that we must prepare for the missile warfare of the 21st century or pay the consequences.