Iran's situation explosive — It's not just a satellite launch
By Peter Brookes, Special to the China Post
February 8, 2009, 12:27 am TWN
Normally, a satellite launch isn't newsworthy. They happen all the time. But Iran's launch of its first domestically built satellite this week is a very big deal for U.S. national security.
Like its "civilian" nuclear efforts that remained undeclared for two decades, long-range ballistic missiles are likely being developed under cover of Iran's space program. Indeed, Tehran's space work could lead to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to reach all of Europe and the United States with a WMD payload.
Fact is, with this successful launch Tuesday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran has moved one step closer to developing that ICBM capability. More launches are expected.
In theory, if you can launch a ballistic missile that can place a satellite into Earth orbit, you have the scientific wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead.
This inconvenient truth is particularly unnerving if you - as many do - believe Iran is involved in developing a nuclear weapon.
Remember: Moscow's launch of its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 meant not only had the Russians bested us scientifically, but a Soviet ICBM capability wasn't far behind. In addition, even though Tehran insists its space program is for peaceful purposes - just like its nuclear program - its space efforts follow an unnerving proliferation pattern.
In the late 1990s, North Korea also used a "civilian" space program to clandestinely build and test a ballistic missile with intercontinental potential.
Another troubling sign is Iran launched its satellite ahead of schedule. Just last year, Tehran said it would send its first indigenously-produced satellite into space in mid-2009.
One has to wonder whether Iran is receiving outside assistance. (Russia? North Korea?) Fortunately, while Iran has made progress in developing an ICBM, it's not there yet. Tehran still needs more advanced rocketry.
Experts estimate a sufficiently-energetic Iranian two-stage ballistic missile could reach all of Europe - plus America's East Coast; one with three stages could range the whole of the U.S.
(Iran can already range all of the Middle East and parts of southeastern Europe with its North Korea-assisted Shahab-series missiles.)
A warhead is also needed, one that could withstand the great pressures and heats of intercontinental flight. But Iran seems to be working on that, too. According to an IAEA report of last summer, Iran is redesigning the payload chamber of the "Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear warhead."
Setting the ICBM issue aside, it's also unsettling that Iran now has the capability to build and launch its own satellites. (Russia launched Iran's only other satellite in 2005.)
This new capability means Iran will likely be developing a satellite architecture that could also be used for conventional military purposes.
Tehran could field military satellites which would aid Iran in battle by relaying secure communications, gathering intelligence, providing early warning and weapons' targeting.
None of this is good news, especially considering Iran's long-standing hostility toward the United States, sponsorship of terrorism, involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and regional great power ambitions.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.