An Iranian plan to fire a research instrument into space next Wednesday has generated little reaction in the United States and elsewhere, in part due to technical factors limiting the project's relevance to potential development of an ICBM capability, Wired magazine reported on Wednesday (see GSN, May 15).
The international community's limited response to Iran's planned deployment of its Fajr orbiter contrasts significantly with the global condemnations that followed North Korea's unsuccessful April attempt to send a long-range rocket into space (see GSN, May 11).
Unlike Pyongyang, Tehran would still require a number of years to potentially acquire nuclear armaments, according to projections cited by Wired. Iran's satellite deployment is scheduled to coincide with a planned multilateral discussion aimed at resolving concerns over possible military aspects of the nation's nuclear program; Tehran insists its atomic efforts are strictly peaceful (see related GSN story, today).
Geographic factors also play a role in the world's divergent reactions, the magazine said. The distance separating the Iranian and U.S. capitals is 1,200 miles greater than the span between Seattle and Pyongyang, and the direction in which the planet turns means Iran faces a higher technical barrier than North Korea in potentially extending its missile reach to the United States.
Still, longtime intelligence observer John McCreary referred to an “odd double standard (that) seems to govern issues of missile proliferation.
"Unlike the North Korean space launch attempt, no nation has accused Iran of using a space launch to disguise a test of systems useful in long range ballistic missiles,” the expert said.
Given Iran's successful fielding of several orbital systems over the last seven years, the nation's description of its space effort as a nonmilitary endeavor is more credible than a similar assertion put forward by North Korea, according to Wired.
“There is little to no evidence for concluding that the North is serious about its peaceful space activities,” according to Scott Pace, who heads George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.
“Pyongyang has not yet demonstrated the ability to construct or even operate communications satellites, interpret data from remote sensing systems, or even engage in cooperative international space science research. In comparison to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the sophistication of the D.P.R.K.’s space efforts might be placed behind Bangladesh and Mongolia,” Pace said in written remarks.
Still, technology used to place objects into orbit can also be applied to ballistic missiles.
“The argument is, well, this teaches [Iran] about a whole bunch of technologies that go into an ICBM,” such as division, combustion and command components for the weapon's three separate engine-and-fuel systems, according to Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“The counterargument is a lot of things are useful for them. It’s still not a friggin’ ICBM. It’s still not the same thing as doing it,” Lewis said.
Iran plans to deliver the Fajr craft into orbit using its Safir 1-B rocket, which has a cargo capacity and maximum distance far smaller than those of an ICBM. Additional technical hurdles include the need for an ICBM's engines to produce exactly equal measures of propellant force, and for its bomb, command and atmospheric insertion components to remain intact as they move toward the planet at a supersonic rate of motion (Noah Shachtman, Wired, May 16).
An Iranian plan to fire a research instrument into space next Wednesday has generated little reaction in the United States and elsewhere, in part due to technical factors limiting the project's relevance to potential development of an ICBM capability, Wired magazine reported on Wednesday.