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Friday, September 08, 2006


This is from the current issue of The Middle East Review of International Affairs. It raises many important issues regarding Iranian military intentions:
External support continues to help advance Iran’s space effort. Tehran is advancing its space program to satisfy numerous civil and military objectives, including manufacturing satellites to accurately guide its Shahab ballistic missiles. The United States and Israel remain gravely concerned of Iranian efforts to gain more military power. The Iranian space endeavor mimics a disturbing pattern other countries use clandestinely to advance their long-range missile programs. Iran might reengineer the Shahab to carry future satellites and try to obtain significant political rewards from future satellite launches. Exploiting this event would unite Iran politically, complicating Washington’s regional objective, and further destabilizing the region.

Iranian efforts to advance its space program follow an unsettling pattern seen elsewhere. In slightly different ways and to varying degrees of success, China, North Korea, and Pakistan use a civil space program clandestinely to manufacture longer-range missiles to further safeguard national security. Iran seeks to become a space power for similar reasons. This is a concern to the United States and its allies. Unlike other Islamic countries with satellites, the Iranian defense ministry plays a prominent role in shaping the space effort with possible contributions from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). This military component manages the Shahab ballistic missile program, which Iran might modify into a space launch vehicle (SLV) with foreign support.

The United States and its allies find the Iranian space endeavor threatening. Tehran seeks to build satellites to improve the military’s ability to target potential enemies and to closely monitor the region. Enhancing the Shahab to become satellite-guided would allow Iran to strike Israel and United States military forces stationed throughout the region precisely. Statements from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared his intention to “wipe Israel off the map” and dismissed the United States as a “hollow superpower,” heighten the level of tension.

Iran might seek to develop a space program to improve national pride. Successfully testing a launch vehicle would allow Iran to boast that it is a space power. The propaganda Tehran espouses following this event might unite the country. This would further legitimize Ahmadinejad’s policies and rhetoric, and generate greater regional and international fear regarding the regime’s intentions.


The danger that Iran’s space program poses to regional security will likely increase with greater cooperation with China. According to Ahmad Motamedi, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, China is an attractive partner partly because of its ability to launch 40 rockets successfully since 1996.[45] Beijing not only has a mature space effort, but key programs that have military applications. Two examples are the Brazilian-Chinese joint project to launch a remote-sensing satellite constellation and Beijing’s active involvement in the European Galileo global positioning system (GPS) project. Critics argue that China can replicate the technologies from this project to manufacture an indigenous GPS navigation program or exploit current vulnerabilities.[46] One Chinese aerospace journal already explored some of the system’s susceptibilities, to include attacks from space or ground-based lasers and anti-satellites. China’s involvement in the Galileo effort could help Beijing reaffirm or disprove the efficacy of these methods, which could also benefit Iran in producing similar systems.[47]

Chinese technicians assist their Iranian counterparts through regional endeavors. The Small Multi-Mission Satellite (SMMS) project is an effort to collaborate on various space projects, to include building a satellite. China and Iran continue to lead this initiative. The spacecraft will enter orbit onboard a Chinese SLV to perform civilian remote sensing and communications experiments. Iranian technicians continue to build the remote sensing camera. Some of the technologies used to develop the device can enhance Iran’s long-term reconnaissance capabilities.[48]

The SMMS effort is overseen by the Asia-Pacific Multilateral Cooperation in Space Technology and Applications (AP-MCSTA) group. The AP-MCSTA attempts to encourage information exchanges in space technology among countries in the Asia-Pacific region.[49] The AP-MCSTA helps Iran and technicians from other countries obtain more knowledge, often through classes and conferences. Participants in the AP-MCSTA and China’s National Space Administration jointly developed training opportunities to establish relationships and exchange knowledge. Over 120 participants from approximately 30 countries attended a two-week course at China’s Academy of Space Technology in mid-2005 to learn about space-related topics. Some of the courses explored satellite structure, orbit control, micro-satellite design, remote sensing, and spacecraft engineering project management.[50] Iran and other developing nations will benefit from these and other topics, because they can obtain a greater understanding of how to establish, effectively manage, and complete various space initiatives.

Lectures are a notable way for Iran to establish and cultivate relationships with experts. China’s Ma Wenpo taught the June-July 2005 class on remote sensing. He also wrote an article that not only explained the role that internal calibration sensors play in assisting remote sensing ground stations to obtain accurate imagery from satellites, but also assessed different systems.[51] This information would help Iran build facilities equipped with the technology to effectively capture and distribute space imagery, greatly enhancing its early-warning capabilities. Tehran’s engagement in regional organizations and interactions with experts in classrooms are vehicles to establish and cultivate relationships with foreign technicians in order to advance its military programs.
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