Photo: Iran is the 9th country to put domestically-built satellites into orbit, and the 6th to send animals into space. | Credit: NASA - Photo: 2013

Who is Afraid of Iran’s Space Program?

By Ajey Lele* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN | IDSA) – Iran has successfully sent a monkey to space and also retrieved it back alive. Has Iran thereby “made a ‘monkey’ of its adversaries”? Or was this demonstration just a smokescreen to experiment with its ballistic missile capabilities? Or is it actually a signal to the rest of the world about Iran’s technological progress?

On January 28, 2013 Iran’s space agency launched a monkey into space and brought it back safely to earth. Iran claims that the rocket carrying the monkey reached an altitude of 120 km. This makes Iran a state with a monkey astronaut! Iran attained this success in its second attempt.

Earlier, in 2011, it had unsuccessfully tried to send a monkey into space. For the latest demonstration, Iran used the Kavoshgar rocket capsule named Pishgam (Pioneer). This was a relatively small rocket and the monkey’s journey in space probably lasted between 12 and 15 minutes. But the fact remains that this successful mission has boosted the confidence of Iran’s scientific community, which views it as a prelude to sending humans into space by 2020.

Iran’s love for sending animals into space is not new. Last year, it had dispatched a mouse, a turtle, and several worms into space. Incidentally, the Iranian monkey is not the first simian to visit space. During the Cold War era, the United States, the then USSR and France had sent monkeys into space. The first simian to visit space was a U.S. monkey way back in 1959.

Iran has been a late beginner in the business of space. Its space programme was established in 2004, and its first satellite was launched in 2009. Iran’s space programme has always been looked at with great suspicion by its adversaries mainly because of the missile angle attached to it.

Dual use technology

Rocket technology is a dual use technology. The technology used for launching satellites also has significant utility for the development of ballistic missiles. Hence, Iran’s ambition in space has always been challenged. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has imposed an almost total prohibition on Iran’s activities in the nuclear and space arena since 2007. Also, UNSC resolution 1929 (2010) prohibits Iran from undertaking activities that could lead to the development of platforms used in the delivery of nuclear weapons.

It is important to note that South Korea became a space-faring nation (a nation that can launch a satellite with indigenous rocket technology) only in its third attempt on January 30, 2013 in spite of being helped by Russia and the United States. In contrast, countries like Iran and North Korea have achieved success much earlier in spite of being under sanctions and at least not overtly getting any support from other states. Because of their nuclear policies any attempts made by these two states in the space arena always gets criticized.

Now, the issue is, just because the nuclear policies of these two countries are not to the liking of many in the world, should these states be punished for having space-faring ambitions particularly when space technologies have significant socioeconomic benefits?

It is important to note that it is not easy to develop ballistic missiles just because a country has mastered the art of satellite launch vehicle technology. It is known that there are certain common technologies with respect to space launch vehicles and missiles. However, while rockets place satellites in space, in the case of ballistic missiles even though their payloads reach outer space these finally have to get delivered to targets on earth. In the case of a space launch the satellite concerned is required to remain in space at a specific altitude, while for a missile the payload has to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and approach correctly towards the target.

In short, acceleration/deceleration, altitude positioning, thermal gradient and gravitation full/push are different in these cases. Also, the burn phases are different for a satellite and a ballistic missile launch. It is therefore naive to believe that just because a state can launch a satellite it can immediately launch a ballistic missile (or vice versa) as well. Hence, to relate a monkey’s safari in space as an indicator of a ‘quantum leap in Iran’s ballistic missile capability’ is wrong.

Iran’s strategic programmes have witnessed some ups and downs over the years. Iran has developed ballistic missiles such as the Fajr-3 with a probable range of 2500 km and Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) capability. Also, since 2003, the country has had missiles such as the Shahab-3 in its arsenal with different variants in the range of 1200 km to 2000 km. Iran’s missile programme has suffered some setbacks in recent years because of a series of explosions at military bases. In November 2011, a blast at a missile base close to Tehran had resulted in the killing of General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, who was described as the “architect” of Iran’s missile programme.


To contend that Iran is “using space launches to demonstrate Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)’ is debateable. This is because only doing a space launch is not enough for producing an ICBM. Over the years Iran has made significant progress in various realms of technology. In the past 30 years, an 11-fold increase in scientific growth has been witnessed in Iran, which is believed to be the highest rate in the world. Iran’s output in terms of science and technology articles (in journals) makes it the 20th largest article producer in this field in the world. Iran is involved in various fields of scientific research including medical sciences, stem cell research, nanotechnology, and energy technologies (apart from nuclear and space science research).

International pressure and economic sanctions have not prevented Tehran from making progress in these fields. The country has major ambitions in the space arena too. It fully understands that in spite of many ridiculing the country for repeating old experiments (like sending a monkey into space) of the 1950s and 1960s, still the world has taken note of its efforts. For Iran, human space flight is a “strategic priority” and sending a monkey into space is a baby step towards that aim.

At the same time, it would be incorrect to argue that Iran’s space programme could have no military dimensions. However, the latest launch is more of a morale booster for the country than an actually demonstration of any strategic capabilities. It is also important to note that any progress in electronics or a few other technological fields would have some military relevance, but this does not give any (moral or otherwise) authority for the major powers to stop other states from developing such technologies. In general, satellite technologies have become a ‘victim’ of global nuclear policies and criticism of Iran’s space programme is indicative of that.

It is important for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which incidentally are the only official nuclear weapon states (NWS), to understand that the world has made much progress while moving from the 20th to the 21st century. They will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the status quo in respect of the existing and unfair nuclear regime. The rate at which the modern technology is developing indicates that different means to hoodwink the existing nuclear regime could emerge. There even exists a possibility that the notion of nuclear deterrence could be challenged by space deterrence. Hence, Iran’s investments in space should not be viewed only through the narrow prism of a nuclear threat. It is essentially an attempt (may be nascent) to challenge the West’s technological domination.

*Ajey Lele, a former Wing Commander of the Indian Air force, is a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). This article first appeared on January 31, 2013 with the headline ‘A Missile in the Monkey’s Shadow?’ [IDN-InDepthNews – February 5, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Iran is the 9th country to put domestically-built satellites into orbit, and the 6th to send animals into space. | Credit: NASA

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