Iran may have secretly tested ballistic missile tech with ‘space launch’
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Iran may have secretly tested ballistic missile tech with ‘space launch’

Launch of rocket ostensibly designed to send satellites into orbit may have actually been cover for intercontinental missile research banned by UN

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp celebrate after a missile launch in July 2012 (AP/IRNA, Mostafa Qotbi)
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp celebrate after a missile launch in July 2012 (AP/IRNA, Mostafa Qotbi)

Iran test-fired an advanced rocket system in the Dasht-e Kavir desert last week, according to Russian and American officials, in what some considered a cover for intercontinental ballistic missile research.

The Simorgh, as the rocket is known, is ostensibly designed to launch satellites into orbit. However, the technology involved is “practically identical” to intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and could be used to launch a nuclear device at targets thousands of miles away, according to Amir Toumaj, a research analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

The rocket launch was initially detected by two separate Russian radar stations at 9:33 a.m. GMT on April 19, Russian media reported, and it was later confirmed by US sources who first disclosed the test fire to the Washington Free Beacon.

Under the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed last year, ballistic missile tests are not outright forbidden, but they are “not consistent” with a United Nations Security Council resolution from July 2015, US State Department spokesperson John Kirby said.

According to the UN decision, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” until October 2023.

That has not stopped Iran from carrying out four tests of ballistic missile technology, including this most recent one, since the nuclear deal was adopted on October 18, 2015.

A long-range Qadr ballistic missile is launched in the Alborz mountain range in northern Iran on March 9, 2016. (AFP / TASNIM NEWS / Mahmood Hosseini)
A long-range Qadr ballistic missile is launched in the Alborz mountain range in northern Iran on March 9, 2016. (AFP / TASNIM NEWS / Mahmood Hosseini)

Though some US officials confirmed news of last week’s launch, the US State Department spokesperson refused to publicly acknowledge it, saying only he’d “seen these reports.”

“Certainly if it’s true, and we’re talking about a ballistic missile launch or the testing of ballistic missile technologies, that’s obviously of concern to us,” Kirby said last Wednesday, adding, “I don’t want to speculate about any future actions one way or another.”

An illustration of the Iranian Simorgh rocket. (Vahid alpha/WikiMedia/CC BY 3.0)
An illustration of the Iranian Simorgh rocket. (Vahid alpha/WikiMedia/CC BY 3.0)

It was not immediately clear if the launch was a success, in large part because the exact purpose of the test was not known. The rocket did not exit earth’s atmosphere, which prompted some US officials to tell Fox News that Iran had not achieved its goal.

However, if the intent of the launch was not to put a satellite into orbit, but rather to test just the first stage of the rocket, last week’s test may indeed have fulfilled its mission, which was Toumaj’s assessment of the launch.

“According to [Russian] preliminary data, this was successful and impacted in the southern parts of Iran,” Toumaj told The Times of Israel via email.

The rocket, dubbed the Simorgh after a griffin-like creature in Persian mythology, was first unveiled in 2010, but was mothballed for a few years, “possibly due to budgetary issues,” according to Toumaj, whose research focuses on Iranian issues.

It is a liquid-fueled rocket similar to the North Korean Unha, which makes sense considering “the cooperation between Tehran and Pyongong on ballistic missiles is well-documented,” Toumaj wrote about the Simorgh test in an analysis last week.

Last month, the head of Iran’s National Space Center Manouchehr Manteqi told local media the missile would be tested in three phases, the first of which would take place in the spring. The next phase would take place in the late summer or early fall of 2016, and the final test would be carried out in early 2017, Manteqi said.

Despite having stated that launches would be carried out in the near future, the Iranian government has yet to officially recognize last week’s launch, nor has the issue been covered in local media save for one website, which only attributed news of the test fire to “foreign reports.”

Amir Toumaj, a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank. (Courtesy)
Amir Toumaj, a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank. (Courtesy)

To Toumaj, this is not surprising, as the “Islamic Republic has no reason to announce tests until the full launch next year, assuming they proceed as planned,” he said.

Iran is on track to develop an operational ICBM by the year 2020, Admiral William Gortney of the North American Aerospace Defense Command told the US Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

“Iran’s continuing pursuit of long-range missile capabilities and ballistic missile and space launch programs, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, remains a serious concern,” Gortney added.

In late November, Iran launched a mid-range missile with a range of 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) from a site near the Gulf of Oman, US officials said.

And in March, Iran test-fired two more ballistic missiles, which an Iranian news agency said had the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them in Hebrew. An Iranian commander said the test was designed to demonstrate to Israel, whose destruction Iran seeks, that it is within Iranian missile range.

A missile launched from the Alborz mountains in Iran on March 9, 2016, reportedly inscribed in Hebrew, 'Israel must be wiped out.' (Fars News)
A missile launched from the Alborz mountains in Iran on March 9, 2016, reportedly inscribed in Hebrew, ‘Israel must be wiped out.’ (Fars News)

The March 9 launch sparked international fury as it appeared to flout the agreements made in the Iranian nuclear deal.

The US, France, Britain and Germany decried the launch as “destabilizing and provocative” and called for UN action.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif brushed off the threat of UN action last month, saying the resolution was non-binding. According to Zarif, the wording of the decision — that Iran is merely “called upon” not to test ballistic missiles — does not make it legally obligatory.

Moreover, since Iran does not yet possess nuclear weapons, the Islamic Republic “[does] not design any missiles to carry things we do not have,” Zarif said during a press conference in Australia.

This is something of a fatuous argument, as “these ballistic missiles are inherently nuclear-capable,” Toumaj said, whether they are specifically designed to carry an atomic device or not.

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