The Space Review

 
Shahab-3 missile
More powerful successors to the Shahab-3 missile could launch satellites—and nuclear weapons. (credit: ISNA)

Iran’s satellite: a look at the implications

Recently, the Iranian military announced that it has successfully tested a 2000-km range missile, the Shahab 5, and the Tehran government has also said that, in April of 2005, they plan to launch the Islamic Republic’s first satellite. This, combined with the mounting evidence that their nuclear program is accelerating, indicates that we are headed for a major crisis next year. During the debates, both Bush and Kerry talked as if they will be able to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and the long-range ballistic missiles to deliver them, if not with diplomacy and sanctions, then with force. If they mean what they say, there is going to be trouble ahead.

From inside Iran, a 2000-km missile will be able to hit, to the west, Greece, Turkey, parts of the Balkans, and the parts of Ukraine. To the east, it will cover all of Pakistan and major parts of India. To the south, it will not only be able to target Saudi Arabia, but Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti, as well. To the north, not only will the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia be within range, but major parts of Russia, as well. The capability of this weapon is far beyond what is needed for a strike against Israel. This missile, and its longer range successors that are already in development are part of a major “asymmetric” arms buildup.

The purpose of this effort is, in the first place, to safeguard the Mullahs’ position at home, where they are under challenge from a generation of young people who reject the Islamic revolution and the dictatorship it has created. Second, it is intended to provide an umbrella for the extension of their power into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, through the use of surrogates, such as Al Sadr and Gulbaddin Hekmatyr.

If Iran can build and test a nuclear weapon, and prove that it has the capability to build and launch a satellite, even a small one, it will join a new category of states that could be referred to as “mini-superpowers.”

Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons is obviously not going to be stopped because the Europeans or the Russian ask them to. The Mullahs believe that they need nuclear weapons not only to deploy against the US and Israel but also to safeguard their own regime. This does not mean that they are going to blow up one of their own cities if the locals get out of line, but it does mean that they want the prestige and the burst of nationalist pride that the Indians and Pakistanis got when their governments tested nuclear weapons in the 1990s.They may also hope that the West will fear that, if the regime is overthrown, the ensuing chaos might lead to a “loose nukes” situation.

Under the Shah, Iran not only bought billions of dollars worth of western weapons, but also arranged for thousands of Iranian students to study science and engineering in the US and elsewhere. Many of these students stayed in the West, but thousands of others went back to Iran. Some of them, or people trained by them, are no doubt working on the Mullahs’ nuclear weapons and on the means to deliver them.

If Iran can build and test a nuclear weapon, and prove that it has the capability to build and launch a satellite, even a small one, it will join a new category of states that could be referred to as “mini-superpowers.” A nation that can launch a satellite can theoretically build an ICBM. Israel and India are members of this club. Pakistan has not yet launched a satellite but has indicated that it plans to do so. Nations as diverse as Brazil, North Korea, South Korea, South Africa, and Japan all have tried, at one time, for membership. Having a satellite in orbit and a “bomb in the basement” gives a government options, and a certain amount of room to maneuver than states without that capability would have.

During its war with Iraq, despite a larger population and greater strategic depth, Iran was nonetheless fought to a standstill, due to Saddam's access to better weapons, from the USSR, France, China, Brazil and elsewhere (The US supplied less than 1% of Saddam’s weapons, mostly training helicopters and Chevy Blazers) and to his massive use of poison gas. The Islamic Republic learned to modify and to adapt the American and British weapons it had inherited from the Shah. The ability to keep even a small part of these systems in operation is not to be dismissed.

To imagine, as some analysts do, that Iran is technologically dependent on Russia, North Korea, China, or Pakistan for its nuclear missile and satellite program is surely a mistake. The Shah was an exceptionally ambitious ruler and he laid the groundwork for Iran to develop a sophisticated and capable armaments industry. The requirements of the 1980-1987 war forced them to build on this foundation. Unless great care is taken, the Mullahs’ military may reserve some nasty surprises for anyone who goes against them.

Fortunately, all reports indicate that the regime in place is at least as unpopular as that of the Shah during his last days. Indications of unrest are all over the Internet and even reach into the mainstream press. Sadly, this may not be enough to overthrow the Mullahs any time soon.

So the US has got to begin developing some alternative plans for dealing with Iran. The US Army and Marine Corps may be fully engaged in Iraq, but the Air Force and Navy have plenty of spare capacity that could be used if diplomacy fails. Effectively targeting these forces against Iran’s bomb program and its supporting infrastructure is an exceptionally tough problem for the Pentagon’s and Centcom’s Joint Planning Staff.

If the US does nothing, then it is quite possible that, within a decade, Iran will have nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit not only Israel and Europe, but America itself. To counter that threat, the US will need a far more effective missile defense system than the one it has today. Only space-based boost phase interceptors, combined with a real multi-layered defense system, could hope to negate the threat.

The final option is to develop and deploy space-based weapons capable of destroying Iran’s missiles and satellite launchers. This means accepting the weaponization of space, something that the Bush Administration seems to be trying to avoid dealing with.

So the US and the West are faced with three exceptionally unpalatable choices. First, they could continue down the diplomatic path. This is currently being pursued, but since the Mullahs are obviously playing for time, this merely means that they will get their full capability. The second possibility is a full scale bombing campaign lasting weeks or months, designed to wear down the regime and destroy their nuclear program. This has some obvious drawbacks for regional stability. The regime would strike back with all the terror apparatus at its disposal. Such an attack, combined with the right political action, might lead to a democratic revolution in Tehran, but no one should count on such an outcome.

The final option is to develop and deploy space-based weapons capable of destroying Iran’s missiles and satellite launchers as they struggle to leave the atmosphere—basically, new versions of Brilliant Pebbles. This means accepting the weaponization of space, something that the Bush Administration seems to be trying to avoid dealing with.

As with North Korea, Iran’s drive for mini-superpower status leaves the US and its allies with no easy options. Whatever short-term strategy is chosen, the only real solution may be in the hands of the Iranian people themselves. The sooner they get rid of their rulers, the less they will suffer, and the sooner they will be able to rejoin the world as a normal nation.


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