By Thomas Erdbrink and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
TEHRAN, Feb. 3 -- Iran said Tuesday it had successfully sent its first domestically produced satellite into orbit using an Iranian-made long-distance missile, joining an exclusive club of fewer than a dozen nations with such capabilities.
The Iranian launch was tracked by amateur and professional satellite observers from North America to Australia, while its significance was debated by military and intelligence analysts and arms control experts. Many agreed that Iran had achieved a milestone: Only 10 other countries have successfully launched satellites into orbit. Iran says it is has previously launched two satellites, but with foreign help.
The country's space, missile and nuclear programs are a source of pride for Iran but have long generated concern in the region and the West, whose leaders say Iran's government is developing the capacity to build and deliver nuclear weapons. Iran says its programs are peaceful.
While the satellite launch was not a surprise -- Iran broadcast its intentions years ago -- the event was a jarring reminder of Iran's progress in developing militarily useful technology.
The rocket used to launch the satellite was not the most sophisticated in Iran's arsenal. Iran used the two-stage Safir-2 -- Safir is a Farsi term meaning "ambassador." The Safir is based on older Russian technology, although Iran claims to have improved the design in the Safir-2, which was first tested in August and has a reported range of about 150 miles.
By contrast, Iran's sophisticated Shahab-3 missile has a range of at least 750 miles, and Iran claims to have extended its reach even farther. At minimum, the Shahab-3 would allow Iran to strike targets throughout the Middle East, Turkey and the southeastern flank of Europe.
"The launch itself was not such a significant accomplishment, but it's a reminder that the clock is ticking on Iran's nuclear program," said David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
At the same time, Albright said, the launch underscored weaknesses that Iran must still overcome in order to launch sophisticated warheads over great distances. The Safir-2 rockets "do not seem very impressive" as delivery systems for nuclear weapons, he said.
Other analysts said Iran's entry into space would further complicate the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. Leonard Spector, an Energy Department official during the Clinton administration and deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said President Obama may now be forced to consider pursuing the controversial missile-defense system proposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The system, which would be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, is firmly opposed by Russia.
In Washington, official reaction to the reported satellite launch was relatively subdued as the Obama administration prepared for its first round of talks with European partners on how to deal with Iran and its weapons programs. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs referred to the Iranian achievement only briefly at the daily news briefing, saying Iranian efforts to develop an advanced missile capability were a matter of "acute concern."
"The president is clear that he wants Iran to be a responsible member of the world community," Gibbs said. Tehran's pursuit of missile technology "does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region," he said.
The launch of the Omid, or "hope," research and telecommunications satellite was hailed by Iranian leaders as proof of the country's independence despite U.N. Security Council sanctions intended to force the country to stop enriching uranium, a process Iran's leaders say they must develop in case other nations refuse to provide them with the fuel.
The launch occurred during elaborate festivities surrounding the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted Iran's U.S.-backed autocrat, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
"Dear Iranian nation, your children have placed the first indigenous satellite into orbit," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised message. "With God's help and the desire for justice and peace, the official presence of the Islamic Republic was registered in space."
Omid is the third Iranian-owned satellite to have been placed in orbit, according to the Press TV news channel, which is financed by the Iranian government. The first, Sina-1, was jointly developed by Russian and Iranian scientists and launched from a Russian space center in 2005. The second, which was developed jointly with China and Thailand, was sent into orbit in 2008, the English-language channel said.
In August, Iran said it had put a dummy satellite into orbit with a domestically made rocket for the first time. U.S. officials said that launch ended in failure.
Reza Taqipour, head of the Iranian Aerospace Organization, said Iran plans to put several satellites into orbit by 2010 with the aim of improving its telecommunications network and national disaster management programs, according to Press TV.
"Iran strives to be a regional scientific power, and a space program is part of that ambition," said Rahman Ghahremanpour, an arms control analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Tehran.
"Any power which is not present in space will in the future also see its influence wane in other areas," he said. "Many non-Western nations have recently increased their presence in space, like India and China. So why not Iran?"
Warrick reported from Washington.