- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

As Iran marks the 30th anniversary of its Islamic revolution, its regime finally has entered the Space Age with technology available in the West for more than 50 years.

American intelligence officials and private arms specialists said that a new satellite and the rocket that launched it on Tuesday were the equivalent of Sputnik-era technology, so named for the satellite launched on Oct. 4, 1957, that sparked the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Iranian satellite — named Omid, or Hope — was the same kind of low-altitude elliptical-orbit technology long surpassed by faster and more advanced equipment.

“The rocket is not that sophisticated,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, told The Washington Times. “That Sputnik technology, a little metal ball that goes ‘beep beep beep,’ is not the same as a nuclear warhead or a telecommunications satellite. It’s harder to send heavier objects and more sophisticated objects into space or across a continent.”

Mr. Albright added, “This test tells us they have not yet mastered long-range, multistage rocket technology” of the kind needed to launch an advanced warhead.

A U.S. counter-proliferation official confirmed Mr. Albright’s analysis.

“The Iranians appear to have successfully launched a low-altitude-orbit satellite on Feb. 2,” the official told The Times. He spoke on condition that he not be named, citing the sensitivity of the information.

“What the Iranians intend to use this satellite for is unclear at this point,” he said. “At the same time, there are no alarm bells ringing because of this launch. This kind of satellite technology has been around for a long time, as early as 1957, with Sputnik.”

Publicly, the Obama administration expressed concern that there is an overlap between the technology used to launch satellites and that necessary for making advanced ballistic missiles.

Acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a statement: “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle (SLV) capable of putting a satellite into orbit establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems. Many of the technological building blocks involved in SLVs are the same as those required to develop long-range ballistic missiles.”

Pentagon spokesman Geoffrey Morrell said, “It is certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range.”

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said, “It is still a significant event that they have launched a satellite; even primitive technology can kill you.”

Mr. Bolton, speaking by telephone from Tel Aviv, added that the launch was one step in a progression for Iran to develop missiles capable of hitting Europe and Israel.

“Putting a satellite into orbit is not the same as dropping a nuclear weapon on a city. The fact is they are proceeding on an element of their program. We should not be alarmist, but neither should we be blase,” he said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the space launch on Iranian radio, has in the past overplayed the progress of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, perhaps in part for domestic political effect.

Last July, Western bloggers and news agencies discovered that a photo of an Iranian missile test had been “photoshopped” to include a fourth missile. In 2006, Mr. Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had joined the “club of nuclear countries” when centrifuges at an enrichment plant in Natanz had produced only a few grams of lightly enriched uranium.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he distrusts Iranian official pronouncements.

“We are talking about the same government that ‘photoshopped’ pictures of the last big missile launch. Did they point a Shahab 3 [an Iranian missile] up into the sky and put a grapefruit into space?” Mr. Clawson asked. “A much more troubling development would be if they had mastered multistage rocket technology. I don’t know. If they told me they had, I still wouldn’t know. I don’t believe them.”

The fact that Iran this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the revolution that brought Shiite Muslim clerics to power could have been a factor in the timing of the launch.

Popular discontent is high because of Iran’s poor economic situation, and the launch might have been viewed as a distraction.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, told a Washington audience on Monday that, by the Iranian government’s own standards, “70 percent of workers are under the poverty line.” She criticized governments, including that of the United States, for having large military budgets and said that no country’s military spending should exceed what it allocates for health and education.

Still, a conservative Tehran newspaper, Iran, in an editorial published Tuesday before the launch was announced, bemoaned Iran’s lack of scientific progress. “Despite all its achievements, Iran has still not reached the high summits of world science and knowledge,” the paper said.

Official comment from other countries expressed alarm not so much about the launch as about where it could lead. Bill Rammell, a minister in the British Foreign Office, said the launch “underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about Iran’s intentions,” according to the Associated Press.

The head of Israel’s space agency, Zvi Kaplan, told the AP: “From what I have been investigating, it is true. 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.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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