On February 29, 2012, Iran’s Alborz Space Center, with much public fanfare, was opened to the international media for the first time. Situated 40 miles west of Tehran, the space facility is one of the keystones of the country’s ambitious space program, which has plans to land an astronaut on the moon by 2025.
Does Iran have the practical capacity to accomplish such a feat, or is this merely populist rhetoric designed to stir up national prestige? If it is a genuine possibility, how did Iran develop in such a short period of time? And what will be the global reaction to an expanded Iranian presence in space?
When Iran burst onto the space scene in February 2009, with the successful launch of its first domestically built orbital satellite, few analysts predicted it and even fewer could regard it as anything more than sheer luck. Prior to this feat the Iranian Space Agency - established in 2003 - was reliant upon the Safir Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV); a three-stage rocket with limited suborbital capability. With the launching of the Omid (Hope) Satellite by the two stage Safir-2 rocket, Iran became the 9th nation on earth to boast an indigenously produced orbital craft. The Islamic Republic has been keen to attribute this achievement to its growing confidence in vanguard scientific and technological fields, which not only provides much needed political leverage at home, but also sends a strategic message abroad regarding Iranian capabilities.
The success of Omid fuelled speculation regarding the ISA’s timetable for launching a manned space flight by 2019. Geoffrey Forden of MIT, who specialises in the analysis of foreign countries’ launch capabilities, admitted that the rocket deployed was more powerful than anything Iran was known to possess. He further stated that: “If they used three stages, there’s no way they’re going to be getting a man to space anytime soon….If it’s two stages, then maybe they could have suborbital flights fairly soon.”
Iran followed this accomplishment in 2010 with the launching of a capsule that contained a rat, two turtles and a worm into orbit onboard the Kashgovar-3 (Explorer) rocket, another indigenous design. Presumably this was to test life support systems in preparation for the launching of a live monkey in 2011. As a preliminary step towards a manned space mission, the project envisioned blasting a life support module to an altitude of 75 miles for a 20 minute suborbital flight, after which the animal would be brought safely back to Earth. Sure enough, in mid-March 2011, the Kashgovar-4 was successfully launched carrying a test module built to house the primate.
Unfortunately for Iran’s political leaders the Kashgovar-5, launched in September 2011, was a complete failure and was quietly forgotten. The Deputy Science Minister Mohammad Mehdinejad-Nouri declared that: ....“the launch was not publicised as all of its anticipated objectives were not accomplished.” Sadly, when the capsule failed to reach its destination, the onboard monkey perished.
Far more publicity value was given to the success of Iran’s second domestically launched satellite Rasad-1 (Observation) on the Safir-B rocket in June 2011. Rasad was the first imaging satellite, which orbited the planet for 3 weeks on a planet-mapping mission.
More recently, the Navid-e Elm-o Sanat (Promise of Science and Industry) satellite sent up in February this year was hailed as a huge achievement for Iranian space technology efforts. The new 110 pound satellite, allegedly built by students at Sharif University of Technology, boasts a store-dump capability and a resolution of up to 400 meters. Controlled from the Alborz Space Center, Navid is reportedly aimed at studying Earth’s weather systems and managing responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, which the region is particularly prone to. Project Director Mojtaba Saradeghi told visiting journalists that the current sanctions had prevented them from obtaining vital equipment needed to manufacture the satellite, but did not stop them from designing their own: “We needed various equipment, including sun sensors, for Navid. We could not buy them because of sanctions. So we designed and produced sun sensors ourselves.”
Although political grandstanding within Iran will always tend to overstate national scientific advances, many independent experts believe that Iran has established itself as a technological powerhouse in the region. Some analysts even making comparisons between Iranian advancement and the Soviet Sputnik program. In 2009 Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that: “Tehran now has established its status as having the most advanced space, missile and nuclear programs in the Muslim Middle East, confirming its technical superiority over its Arab rivals.”
How did Iran gain this technical proficiency? After both Russia and Italy - the two main satellite contractors to Iran - backed out of relations following the toughening of economic sanctions, the country lost major technological backers. Into this apparent vacuum stepped Chinese aeronautical companies and China’s National Space Administration which not only hosted cross regional endeavours such as the Small Multi-Mission Satellite (SMMS) project, but also provided long term training opportunities to establish relationships and exchange knowledge. Beijing’s mature space program and considerable expertise was invaluable to Iran in areas such as satellite structure, orbit control, micro-satellite design, remote sensing, and spacecraft engineering project management. Important topics when creating a state space initiative.
Of considerable interest to western security analysts was the military aspect of this knowledge transfer. Charles Vick, senior technical and policy analyst at GlobalSecurity.org states that: “Direct evidence of assistance, education and hardware transfer from the Chinese to the Iranian defense and space (industries) has been witnessed on a large scale within China’s military industrial infrastructure.”
Another unforeseen supporter was the North Korean government, which was able to supply Iran with considerable rocket technologies and ballistics expertise. North Korea - which has been focused mostly on missile development - is currently pressing ahead with its own satellite launch program due to start next month, after failing twice to get a vehicle into orbit. It is this concern over the relationship between two internationally regarded ‘rogue states’ that is at the heart of western distrust.
The standard narrative of the US and Israel is that Iranian efforts to modify ballistic missiles are being cloaked in the guise of a civil space program. Certainly, from a technical standpoint, missile and rocket development go hand in hand, and it would be relatively easy for space launch vehicles to be used as carriers for ballistic nuclear weapons. A rocket that can put a few dozen kilograms in orbit can also deliver a few hundred kilograms, the mass of a nuclear warhead, as far as Western Europe. Military motives are, of course, something that Tehran vehemently denies.
Does potential for a threat automatically validate paranoia? While it is true that Iran’s space effort has always been closely integrated with and reliant upon the military and defence ministry, much as the Soviet Union’s was, it would perhaps be a mistake to assume that bolstering national security is Tehran’s only goal for space. By developing sophisticated satellite technology Iran will reap strategic and political benefits from the very space presence itself.
Self-sufficiency in the production of satellites and the provision of telecommunications is a vital step towards modernising a nation still essentially reliant upon shrinking natural oil reserves. Iran’s regional rivals either already possess such technologies or can rely upon western support for providing such services. Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey all have substantially more advanced space initiatives but generate none of the global concern due to the common perception that they are civil or at least civilian-controlled projects.
Joan Johnson-Freese of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island comments that: “It would be very difficult for the space-faring nations to say that Iran doesn’t have a sovereign right for space launch capabilities. They have a very legitimate reason for wanting to be able to launch their own satellites for both economic and prestige reasons, but it also gives them an additional military capability. The dual-use aspect really puts you in a dilemma.”
Whatever Iran’s motivations, ambitious goals have been set for the space program. Although a manned mission to the moon by 2025 may seem unrealistic to outside observers the goal has the effect of galvanising national pride and improving international prestige. In a sense the space efforts real value is to reshape Iran’s global status as a technologically developed society, no longer subject to indirect colonial shackles. Iran also gains enhanced political legitimacy at home as scientific and technological advances present the image of an efficient and competent government to the public.
Will Iran achieve human spaceflight in the next 15 years? Only time will tell.