Don’t Count Iran’s Nascent Space Capabilities Out

Don’t Count Iran’s Nascent Space Capabilities Out... 30/09/2016 Science

Keywords:#2015, #AP, #Ahmadinejad, #Asia, #Asia-Pacific, #Beijing, #China, #Chinese, #Defense_Ministry, #Fajr, #GmbH, #Hassan_Rouhani, #ICBM, #IRGC, #Iran, #Iranian, #Islamic, #Islamic_Revolutionary_Guard_Corps, #Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad, #Middle_East, #Moscow, #Nascent, #Pacific, #President, #Rouhani, #Russia, #Russian, #Safir, #Safir-e_Fajr, #Space, #Space_Cooperation_Organization, #Swiss, #Tehran, #Tolou, #United_States,

The Editors Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on a range of countries’ space priorities and programs.
This photo released on Feb. 2, 2015 by the Iranian Defense Ministry, claims to show the launching Safir-e Fajr, or Ambassador of Dawn, satellite carrier in an undisclosed location in Iran (AP photo by the Iranian Defense Ministry).

* * * The head of Iran’s space agency announced plans last month to launch three satellites into orbit within the next year: the Doutsi earth-observation satellite, the Tolou remote sensing satellite and the Aat Sat telecommunications satellite. In an email interview, John B. Sheldon, the chairman and president of ThorGroup GmbH, a Swiss-based consulting company, and publisher and editor of SpaceWatch Middle East, discusses Iran’s space program.
WPR: What are Iran’s space capabilities, in terms of its space-industrial complex, and what are the prospects for international space cooperation after the nuclear deal?
John B. Sheldon: On paper, Iran has a range of space capabilities: communications and remote sensing satellites, space launch vehicles and facilities, a space situational awareness capability, a nascent industrial base, an established research and development infrastructure, and significant engineering and scientific talent. It also has a political establishment that understands—in principle, at least—the benefits of a space program for the purposes of economic and technological development, strategic autonomy and diplomatic prestige.
In reality the picture is more prosaic, but when you take into account Iran’s circumstances over the past few decades, it is still impressive. Iranian satellites are technologically rudimentary and unsophisticated, and their practical utility for widespread and daily use is limited. Iranian launch capabilities are an offshoot of Iran’s ballistic missile program, but too many analysts dismiss them as nothing more than a cover for the development on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system. But what may have started as an ICBM development program has morphed into a genuine quest for independent launch technology. Analysts underestimate Iranian seriousness about space launch at the expense of fully understanding and assessing Tehran’s ambitions in this area.
All this said, however, Iran’s space launch systems are only capable of launching very small satellites—and the occasional monkey—into suborbital and low-earth-orbit altitudes and are notoriously unreliable. As a result, many Iranian satellites have been launched into orbit by Russia over the years.
As for everything else in Iran’s space portfolio, its space situational awareness capabilities, mostly consisting of telescopes, are nascent but notable because Iran is making investments in this area. Its research and development infrastructure and pool of engineering and scientific talent is genuinely impressive, and is Iran’s strongest suit over the long term. The Iranian industrial base is also nascent, and so long as the so-called resistance economy is in place, it will remain so.
In terms of international cooperation, Iran mostly works with Russia and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future given the wider links that have been established over the years between Tehran and Moscow. Russia provides not only occasional launch services for Iran, but also components for satellites, technical and engineering expertise, and training. Commercially, Iran’s relationship with Russia is more troubled. On several occasions, Iranian and Russian satellite manufacturers have negotiated contracts for the provision of relatively sophisticated communications and remote sensing satellites, only for those contracts to be abrogated and canceled.
Iran has reportedly been in discussions with China over the past few years about cooperating in Beijing’s space exploration and human spaceflight programs, but few details are known. Iran is also a member of the Chinese-led Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, and is an active participant in that organization’s satellite and space situational awareness programs. Iran is actively cooperating with other countries in space, just not with the West.
WPR: What are the major priorities of Iran’s space program?
Sheldon: At present, the two biggest priorities for the Iranian space program are the development of a sophisticated communications satellite in geostationary orbit to be used for telecommunications purposes, and a high-resolution remote sensing satellite. These are two longstanding projects that were originally intended to be built by foreign manufacturers, but Iran decided to build both systems indigenously.
All current experimental satellites and technology demonstrations are geared toward the development of these two systems, though it should be noted that Iran’s decision to build these satellites indigenously is largely self-imposed, despite Tehran’s rhetoric to the contrary.
WPR: How big a priority is the space program for the Iranian government, and how does the space program fit into its defense and foreign policies?
Sheldon: The Iranian government has given its space program high priority behind its nuclear, ballistic missile, and National Information Network—the so-called Halal internet—programs. How that high-level political support has manifested itself in reality is a mixed bag. Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there were complaints that his administration was only interested in big public demonstrations of technological prowess that had little practical utility. Under President Hassan Rouhani, however, there seems to be an emphasis on more practical uses of space to serve wider Iranian economic and other interests.
By investing in its space program, even if the results are meager due to wider circumstances such as economic sanctions, Tehran is able to leverage it into cooperation with Russia and potentially China. Further, while Iran’s economy is sclerotic because of a lack of reforms, its potential is enormous, and should Tehran undertake serious and lasting economic reform, its space sector will not only benefit, but will undoubtedly be an attractive outlet for international engagement.
As for defense policy, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is heavily involved in the Iranian space program from a political and economic perspective, it is hard to discern how, if at all, they are using space systems militarily. There is some evidence that Iranian strategic thinkers understand the benefits of space power, but there is little evidence that the IRGC or the Iranian army have integrated space into their force structures, tactics, techniques and procedures.
There is evidence, however, that Iran is looking at rudimentary counterspace capabilities, such as electronic jammers against communications satellites, that could potentially deny the United States and its allies use of space for short periods of time in and around Iran in the event of a conflict.

---The head of Iran’s space agency announced plans to launch three satellites into orbit within the next year: the Doutsi earth-observation satellite, the Tolou remote sensing satellite and the Aat Sat telecommunications satellite. In an email interview, John B. Sheldon discusses Iran’s space program. ---...

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