- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Iran’s recent breakthrough in placing its own satellite in orbit by a homemade multistage rocket earned it the distinction of being the first radical regime that reaches space.

Worse, the tepid reaction in the United States and the West to this watershed event served as a powerful inducement for Iran, North Korea and other potential nuclear wannabees to camouflage their offensive missile programs in the guise of peaceful space activities.

The truth must be said: Iran’s space program is no more peaceful than its nuclear program. Self-delusion will not help here.

Ever since the dawn of the space age, ballistic missiles and space launchers existed in close symbiosis. The first two satellites in human history, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and the U.S. Explorer 1 were lofted to Earth orbits aboard slightly modified ballistic missiles. The alarm in the United States at the Soviet achievement did not come from the rudimentary 80 kilogram ball of metal that beeped its way in space but from the rocket that launched it. Any rocket that can propel a satellite into Earth orbit can be easily modified and upscaled to drop a significant bomb anywhere on Earth.

Ballistic missiles and space launchers are so intertwined that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the only international instrument that governs the sale of missiles and their technologies, does not distinguish between the two. The MTCR, subscribed today by 34 industrialized nations (Russia included) defines space launchers as missiles for every practical purpose, and bans the sale of their key technologies except to responsible governments and under strict assurances of end use.

The appearance in 1998 of the North Korean Paektusan 1 that failed to orbit a satellite, and the Iranian Safir that succeeded to do so in 2009, made a mockery of the MTCR. By rights, every key technology utilized in those launchers - the rocket motors, the stage separation systems, their guidance and control instrumentation - should have been denied to the two missile-brandishing countries. Yet the fact is that someone, somewhere was greedy enough - or politically motivated enough - to contravene international norms and regulations to supply the two with all their space and missile needs.

Let’s make no mistake about it. In practical terms, proficiency in space launching is synonymous with a proficiency in missile engineering. Even if the Paektusan and Safir are too puny by themselves to send meaningful payloads across oceans, the teams (or the team?) that designed them can use the accredited know-how and accumulated experience to design capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. Or the other way around: The same teams that designed the long-range rocketry of these two radical players, can modify them into space launchers - and clothe their military program in the peaceful guise of space activity.

While this interchangeability between missiles and space launchers was always obvious to experts, it was less so to political and military leaderships. Hence, one can only imagine the pleasant surprise of the Iranian leadership, castigated internationally after each of its provocative Shahab and Sajeel ballistic missile tests, when the success of the Safir space launcher was received with indifference in the United States and elsewhere. It probably dawned on those leaders that there was no better way to flex Iran’s missile muscles than by disguising it as peaceful space “research.” Take your theater ballistic missile and call it “Kavoshgar Sounding Rocket.” take your embryonic ICBM and call it “Safir Space Launcher.” Chances are that Western gullibility will buy the hoax.

It stands to reason that the North Koreans too were overjoyed to watch the tepid reaction to Iran’s latest hat trick. Hence the forthcoming North Korean space-launching event, expected in the near future.

Why provoke the world with a long-range missile test, when the gullible will swallow it provided that it is covered by a fig leaf of a respectable space launch? There is of course the problem of Japan bristling at the prospect of another North Korean rocket traversing its national territory as in 1998. But if this is somehow passed over without insufferable consequences to the North Korean leadership, expect more and more such “peaceful” events in the future.

The forthcoming North Korean space launch may help solve another mystery: that of the relationship between its space and missile programs and those of Iran. Do we have two separate rocket teams here, or just one? A single image of a new North Korean space launcher will speak volumes. Be it as it may, the continued equanimity of officials and analysts in the face of supposedly “peaceful” space activities by two of the most belligerent regimes today will not make to world safer for us, but for them.

Uzi Rubin is an Israeli defense engineer and analyst.

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