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Iran's satellite spells potential ICBM threat

AFP - February 3, 2009

Iran's launch of a domestically made satellite into orbit demonstrates Tehran has moved one step closer to eventually building long-range nuclear missiles that could reach Europe or the United States, experts said on Tuesday.

The ability to send a satellite into space -- combined with Tehran's disputed nuclear program and uranium enrichment -- raises the threat Iran could ultimately have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal, US officials and experts say.

"In the case of Iran, one of the biggest concerns we've always had is that any country that can put a satellite into orbit has thereby demonstrated that they can send a nuclear weapon to intercontinental distances," said Rick Lehner, a spokesman of the US Missile Defense Agency.

Iranian leaders portrayed the launch of the Omid (Hope) satellite on Monday as a technological milestone and a symbol of national pride, but the move reinforced concerns in Western capitals about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

It also may have had the unintended effect of bolstering arguments for a missile defense system in Europe, even amid signs US President Barack Obama might delay the program to ease tensions with Russia.

US advocates for missile defense have long cited Tehran as the source of a possible threat against Europe, said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "has ridiculed US statements about how Iran could at some point have a system that could reach Europe and suggested that this is nonsense," Clawson said.

With Iran ignoring demands to freeze sensitive nuclear work, the satellite launch was also sure to complicate US and European diplomacy with Tehran as a new American president tries to defuse tensions and open a possible dialogue.

The United States and European allies sharpened their tone Tuesday toward Iran, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying the satellite launch "does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region."

The United States, he said ominously, has pledged to use "all elements of our national power to deal with Iran."

The Obama administration said it planned to raise the issues of Iran's nuclear and missile programs at talks in Germany on Wednesday with European allies, Russia and China.

Tehran's apparently successful launch was particularly impressive given the strict international sanctions imposed on Iran, including restrictions on missile-related technology, experts said.

"In the face of world opposition and sanctions, Iran has joined a very exclusive club: those countries that have managed to orbit a satellite," Geoffrey Forden, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote on

Based on data released by the US space agency NASA and reports from amateur observers, Forden said it appeared the satellite was successfully sent into a relatively low orbit.

But it remained unclear if Iran had used a three-stage rocket with technology associated with Soviet-era Scud missiles, or had made a "quantum leap" with a much more powerful two-stage rocket, he said.

"If it was a two-stage missile then they had a huge jump in technology and that would be very scary," Forden told AFP.

The sophisticated two-stage rocket "would certainly advance the possibility of an ICBM much more than we've been thinking about until now."

He said there were indications from amateur observers of the launch that the Iranians had used a two-stage rocket, but it was too soon to reach any conclusions.

However one US official who works in national security played down the significance of the Omid satellite.

"It's certainly something to keep an eye on but it's not ringing any alarm bells," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Satellite technology is not new, and there are different levels of sophistication and I wouldn't put this in the category of advanced satellite technology at all," the official said.

For Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad --- who has vowed to expand his country's scientific development -- the satellite carried a message of "peace and brotherhood" to the world and he dismissed suggestions the space project had a military objective.


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