Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Iran Launches Satellite in a Challenge for Obama

Iran said Tuesday that it had launched its first domestically produced satellite, a move that has prompted concerns in the United States and other nations about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its ability to deploy long-range ballistic missiles.The launch on Monday, coinciding with celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, also creates an early challenge for President Obama, who has sought to strike a conciliatory tone toward Iran by conditionally offering dialogue after years of tensions. The United States and other nations believe Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iran’s leaders deny.
Iran said it had also used a domestically produced rocket to launch the satellite. That would make it part of the exclusive club of states that can loft objects into orbit, which now numbers at least nine. Weapons experts say the same technology used to put satellites into orbit can also be used for launching weapons.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood called the reports a matter of “great concern” and potentially in violation of United Nations agreements limiting Iran from missile activity.
“Developing a space launch vehicle that could be put a satellite into orbit could possibly lead to the development of a ballistic missile system,” he said.
The head of Israel’s Space Agency, Zvi Kaplan, said initial reports showed that a satellite had been launched.
“From what I have been investigating it is true,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “We are not surprised because in this day and age of information and technology and with Iranian scientists studying abroad they can obtain the knowledge.”
The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, said the satellite was launched using a Safir-2 rocket and was “successfully sent into orbit.”
The satellite, which weighed about 60 pounds, is named Omid, or Hope, IRNA said, and was sent into space as a “data-processing satellite project” that began in March 2005 as “the first practical step toward acquiring national space technology.”
“The project’s experts focused on manufacturing the equipment and helping develop the potential of domestic companies to carry out such projects,” the IRNA report said.
David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said he felt the technology used by Iran to launch the satellite remained rudimentary by international standards.
“It’s not a very capable missile. The payload and diameter aren’t that great,” he said. “It doesn’t say much, if anything, about their ability to deliver a nuclear weapon. But part of the concern here is that Iran is continuing its steady drip-drip-drip toward a nuclear weapons capability.”
Aerospace experts said that while Tehran was still not capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, the satellite still took many years of preparation and required the mastery of staging — the art of creating a multistage rocket that drops stages (and thus weight) as it races ever higher.
Last August, Iran test-fired a new rocket capable of carrying a satellite into orbit. Western experts said at the time that the launching represented a potentially significant, if much-delayed, step in Iran’s efforts to join the international space club. And in 2005, Tehran launched a Russian-made satellite with a Russian-made rocket.
“They’ve been at this game for about five years, working on a rocket big enough to put a satellite into space,” said Charles P. Vick, an expert on Iranian rockets at GlobalSecurity.org, a private research group in Alexandria, Va.
He added that the Iranian rocket had two stages. If carrying a warhead, he said, the Iranian missile could fire the weapon about 1,550 miles.
For Iran to achieve the technical step of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, Mr. Vick said, it would have to develop a more powerful basic rocket or more upper stages — goals it is pursuing.
Since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, outside powers have been looking for clues as to whether Tehran is prepared to make new concessions in the dispute over Iran’s alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. They have also been waiting to see how the new American president will pursue his overtures of dialogue, which are designed to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Nations dealing with the Iran issue — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France and Germany — will meet Wednesday in Frankfurt, Germany, for their first talks since Mr. Obama took office.
Iranian state television on Tuesday showed footage of a rocket blasting off from a firing platform in a huge blast of smoke flame as it clambered into the night sky.
“Dear Iranian nation, your children have placed the first indigenous satellite into orbit,” Reuters quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying 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,” he said.
The Omid was designed to gather information and test equipment, according to Reuters, and will circle the earth 14 times a day. Iranian television news said the satellite would return to earth with data after orbiting for one to three months.
Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst and professor of international law at Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabai University, said that the launching of the satellite could elevate Iran’s status and lead to a change of tone toward Iran’s nuclear program.
“Their success shows that Iran has achieved major technological progress,” he said. “It is also a matter of prestige for Iran because it has joined the space club, which has very few members.”
Iran also announced Tuesday that it would test its new version of a radar-evading plane in the first half of the new Iranian year, which starts on March 21. The commander of the Iranian air force, Brigadier General Hassan Shah-Safi, said Tuesday that Iran had also increased the flight range of its fighters to over 1,200 miles, the IRNA news agency reported.
William J. Broad reported from New York, and Alan Cowell from London. Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran, and Sharon Otterman from New York.
The New York Times