WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced last week in New York that his Islamic Republic is planning yet another "satellite launch" using a new, unnamed booster rocket.
According to the Iranian Web site Payvand.com, Ahmadinejad boasted that the new space vehicle will have 16 motors and will boost a satellite 420 miles into space.
The forthcoming launch will be the third one this year, after an "experimental" -- and apparently unsuccessful -- launch on Aug. 17. According to Iranian sources, the missile was the Safir-e-Omid-1 -- "Ambassador of Hope" -- satellite launcher that did not carry a real satellite.
Then, the Iranian media provided a brief report on the launch and one television channel broadcast a clip of the nighttime launch. There were no official statements similar to those that accompanied previous launches. According to Western intelligence sources, Safir-1 may be a spinoff of Shahab-3, a well-known Iranian intermediate-range ballistic missile.
On Feb. 5, on the 29th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, Ahmadinejad ordered the launch of a ballistic rocket Kavoshgar-1 -- Explorer-1 -- described as a "space-launch vehicle." The single-stage rocket was launched from a new and secret space center in northern Iran that was inaugurated that day.
Ahmadinejad did the countdown, and the officials present shouted "Allahu Akbar" -- God is Great. The Iranian authorities claim the launch of the rocket was a test for a future launch of the first Iranian-built satellite, the Omid -- "Hope." Iran's news agency reported the launch of the satellite would take place by March 2009, when the next Iranian year will end.
Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced in February that the Omid satellite might be launched by May or June, but this was not to be. Iran's first satellite, the Sinah-1, was built and launched in Russia in October 2005.
Iran vehemently maintains that the test launches for the satellite program are of a purely civilian nature. However, experts voice two concerns regarding the Iranian missile program.
First is that the Explorer-1 is a space-launch vehicle version of a new ballistic missile that was tested last November, with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. It is probable that this new missile is none other than the Shahab 4, which is likely based on technology transfer by Russia. This is the single-stage Soviet SS-4 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which was deployed in Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962. Coincidentally, it also used to have a space-launch version.
Secondly, this may be the initial testing of a new ballistic missile that may be of a combined Russian and North Korean pedigree. There were previous reports that Iran was developing a new ballistic missile with a range of 2,400 to 3,600 miles, which would keep Europe in its sights.
According to Jane's Defense Weekly, such missiles would be capable of serving as space-launch vehicles and may be identified as either the Shahab 5 or Shahab 6. The British Daily Telegraph reported that former high-ranking members of the Russian military facilitated a multimillion-dollar 2003 missile technology transfer agreement between Iran and North Korea.
According to the newspaper, Russia has exported to Iran "production facilities, diagrams and operating instruction so the missile can be built in Iran, as well as liquid propellant (to fuel the rockets). Russian specialists have also been sent to Iran to help development of its Shahab 5 missile project."
Transporter erector launcher technology developed by the North Koreans for their latest Taepo-dong 2 ballistic missile was being sent to Iran. The Telegraph mentioned that the new ballistic missile that Iran was developing with the North Koreans and Russians has a range of 2,100 miles and a payload of 1.2 tons. Such a range would enable the missile to reach large portions of Europe, including Berlin, Rome, Paris and all of Central Europe. The payload would enable the missile to carry a nuclear warhead. This missile could have a space-launch capability as well.
Finally, the new space rocket might be linked to the 2,400-mile range ballistic missile Iran is developing, because it has been suggested that the rocket engine of the Shahab 4 could be that of the Soviet SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missile. The SS-5 had a maximum range of 2,700 miles and was also a single-stage missile fueled by liquid propellant. It also had a space-launch version.
At this point, it looks like Iran is developing two space launch vehicles -- one an enhanced IRBM, and the other a nascent ICBM.
(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation. His most recent book is "Kazakhstan: The Road to Independence.")