Iran: The Potential for a Satellite Launch

5 MINS READJan 27, 2007 | 00:56 GMT
Iran has assembled a satellite launch vehicle that could lift off soon, according to a Jan. 26 Aviation Week & Space Technology report citing the chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. This claim is not as far-fetched as it might seem.
A Jan. 26 report in Aviation Week & Space Technology quotes Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, as saying that Iran has converted one of its missiles into a satellite launch vehicle. Though Iranian statements concerning military hardware could be given to exaggeration at times, the details of Boroujerdi's announcement do not necessarily suggest embellishment. While multistage satellite insertion is quite sophisticated compared to the technology behind the single-stage medium-range Shahab-3 missile that figured prominently in Iran's 2006 military exercises, it is within the realm of possibility. The leap from the Shahab-3 to a multistage satellite launch vehicle would be no greater than the technological stretch needed for North Korea's 1998 launch of the Taepodong-1. In fact, such a development would be less of a stretch for Tehran, because Iran has North Korean help. Iranians are known to have been present at North Korea's July 5, 2006, launch of the Taepodong-2. Mounting multiple stages on a missile is difficult — and a failure of the stages to separate has caused trouble for both the North Korean Taepodong-2 and Indian Agni-III — but it is not unachievable. In 1998, without any prior flight testing, the second and third stages of the Taepodong-1 successfully separated in their maiden flight. It was only the rupture of the third-stage solid booster that doomed North Korea's first satellite — but that rupture occurred after the missile reached orbital velocity. Cooperation among Iran, North Korea and Pakistan in the realm of missile technology has been extensive. Past assistance from China and Russia is also likely. The Shahab-3, North Korean Nodong and Pakistani Ghauri II are all derived from Scud technology and are more or less the same missile. The four rotating vanes in the exhaust that steer the missile, for example, are characteristic of the Scud design heritage. While their similar outward appearance is no surprise, given that they are all based on the widely proliferated Soviet design, cooperation among Iran, Pakistan and North Korea has included other advances, such as improvements in gyroscopic guidance. These are not to be mistaken for anything but primitive missiles; Scud technology has been pushed beyond its optimal functionality. But primitive is really all it takes to throw a satellite that weighs a couple of hundred pounds around the earth for a few months. The insertion of a satellite into orbit is more a matter of velocity than altitude. Once the satellite reaches a few hundred miles of altitude, it simply has to be moving fast enough to maintain orbit. An Iranian satellite will likely orbit the earth for a few months before burning in, just as Sputnik I did. Iran's Shahab-3 — which now looks to have been successfully shifted to solid fuel, an important advancement for a satellite launch vehicle — has seen multiple tests and is close to operational deployment. This and other preparations for the next step in developing a multistage missile have been extensive. Though an indigenously built Iranian satellite launch vehicle could exist, the launch of a North Korean-manufactured Taepodong-2 with an Iranian flag painted on it is far more likely (although any Iranian-built missile would likely be nearly identical to the Taepodong-2 and in grainy imagery of such a launch it could be impossible to tell one from the other). Either way, any Iranian satellite launch vehicle will look strikingly similar to the Taepodong family, and there would almost certainly be North Korean scientists on the ground at the launch site.
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Iran will likely launch northward or southward for a polar orbital insertion. The Caspian Sea to the north or the Indian Ocean to the south offer the best prospects for the harmless fall of a first stage and the least danger in the event of a catastrophic failure. But both routes represent potential overflights — Russia to the north and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to the south (depending on the launch location) — that could be politically problematic. However, such a launch would be a major political achievement itself. There is no better time for an Iranian satellite launch. The political impact of testing at this critical geopolitical juncture would mark a major technological step forward and a strong show of force (the essential difference between a satellite launch vehicle and an intercontinental ballistic missile is what is sitting on top of the third stage). Though Iran is still quite a ways from anything that could threaten the continental United States, Tehran will be able to further pressure Washington into negotiations, which Washington seeks to delay until it can improve the security situation in Iraq — and a satellite launch would serve Tehran as another bargaining chip in negotiations. Meanwhile, recent U.S. efforts to place a future ballistic missile defense base in the Czech Republic and possibly Poland that once seemed prudent for future developments now have a new sense of relevance. U.S. intelligence estimates had set 2015 as the time frame for Iran to have an intercontinental ballistic missile, but in light of this new development, it seems possible that the United States was aware of Iran's technological progress (which would lend further credence to Iran's claims). Either way, funding for U.S. ballistic missile defense seems unlikely to suffer.

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