Iran's Impending Global Reach

October 13, 2004

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


Uzi Rubin


Middle East Missile Monitor
Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  • Iran announced a space program as early as 1998.
  • The recent Shihab 3 test and new Iranian statements herald a forthcoming launch of a small technological satellite by a Shihab 3 based space launcher.
  • If successful, this will be an epochal event: Iran's power projection will leap from regional to global ranges.
  • Like Sputink, Iran's first satellite will be a reminder that ICBMs are but space launchers with overweight payloads.


Earlier this year we observed in this column that "Even without explicit Iranian disclosures, Iran watchers could be confident that a space launcher program was brewing" and noted that as early as 1998, Iran's Minister of Defense had alluded to the development of an indigenous space launcher (See "The Feasibility of a Shihab 3 based Satellite Launcher" by I. Briman and A. Malta, The Middle East Missile Monitor, posted January 20th 2004). Recent reports from

Iran now land substance to our observation, indicating that Iran's entry to the select club of space - faring nations may come sooner than previously envisaged. Once in space, Iran will have a global reach that will have to be factored in the shaping of any policy towards her.

Our January 20th comments focused on a model satellite launcher displayed in a 1998 arms exposition in Iran (See Fig 1). Assuming that it was based on the Shihab 3's propulsive stage with two extra stages added, we estimated a takeoff weight of the launcher as 24-25 tons, and a lifting capability to low - earth orbit of about 5 Kg. Such a miniscule lifting capability suggested one of three alternatives: Either the depicted model launcher was a conceptual "Artist notion" with no specific design in mind, or that the model represented a much larger space launcher, based on a heavier propulsive stage, or that the model represented real but rudimentary, Shihab 3 based first generation launcher for orbiting a small package in order to gain experience in the art of space launching.

The widely publicized and photographed August 11 test of an upgraded Shihab 3 missile, coupled with recent statements by Iranian officials, seems to give credence to the third alternative - that the 1998 model did represent a realistic, Shihab 3 based space launcher. The images of the August 11th test disclosed a substantially modified Shihab 3 missile, with improved reentry vehicle but also with a larger propulsive stage (See Fig. 2). Our measurements seem to indicate that the new propulsive stage could be about one meter longer than the previous model, and that the instrument section of the missile has moved forward, releasing another half a meter or so worth of missile volume for propellant tankage. We therefore estimated that the new model Shihab 3 (Dubbed Shihab 3B by some observers) contained about 15% more propellants than its predecessor. Repeating our calculations from January for a Shihab 3B based space launcher, we obtained a lifting capability of about 20Kg to low earth orbit.

Two recent reports on Iran's intentions to orbit a small satellite to low earth orbit contain some quantitative disclosures. On September 4th, Iran's Network 1 television aired an interview with the head of the Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who disclosed that Iran's first satellite would be launched by April - May 2005. The satellite will weigh 60 Kg and will orbit the earth at an altitude of 900 Km. This lifting capability, although still modest, is significantly larger than our forecast.

Two weeks later, on September 20th, Reuters reported from Teheran that Iran's first test satellite; the "Safir 313" will be launched before March 2005. The Safir satellite will be lifted by a modified version of the Shihab 3 missile, will weigh 20 Kg and orbit the earth at an altitude of 250 Km. These data are entirely consistent with our recent calculations as described above. Of course, the convergence of our prediction and the report from Teheran could be entirely coincidental - but than again, it could be factual. With this caveat in mind, we can tentatively conclude that Iran's first launcher is based on the new and heavier Shihab 3B, with extra two upper stages. Our previous speculation that the 1998 model has represented a true first generation Iranian launcher seems now to be corroborated.

Obviously, a 20 Kg satellite cannot be used for much more than "waving the flag", so to speak. Its miniscule weight, as satellites go, will be mostly dedicated to structures and inherent systems, not to payloads. It can be expected to broadcast some data about its environment to justify a claim for a "Science" mission. It is doubtful whether the heard headed Iranians will stoop to overemotional gestures such as broadcasting the national anthem. Nevertheless, they are sure to milk the propaganda value of their first successful space launch for all its worth.

Iran has much to gain and nothing to lose by pursuing a much more capable space program. It is logical to expect her to aim for reconnaissance satellites, emulating Israel's "Ofeq" series. Such satellites will boost Iran's military capability against Israel, allowing her to build a dossier of strategic targets for the Shihab 3B missiles. It will also increase her early warning capability against any purported US intervention. Reconnaissance satellites of military value weigh in at 300 Kg and above. To lift such satellites to space, Iran will have to develop a much more capable space launcher, or buy launch services abroad. And indeed, the same September 20th report from Teheran contained a reference to a heavier "Cartography" (i.e. reconnaissance) satellite weighing 170 Kg, to be launched by a Russian rocket in the near future. This weight is still too low in our opinion for a military significant capability, but again like Iran's first generation launcher, this could be Iran's first generation reconnaissance satellite. Eventually, the two efforts - the space launcher and the satellite programs - could grow and converge to yield a matched capability for lifting significant observation satellites to low earth orbit on a steady, ongoing basis - the essence of a working space program.

Regarding the Shihab 3B, we commented elsewhere about its resemblance to Soviet missiles of the 1960's era. Is the forthcoming Iranian space launcher entirely indigenous, or has its design been supported by Russian rocket expertise? We have no evidence either way, but official Russian expressions in the past tended to be more tolerant to proliferation of space launch technologies. This does not prove anything, yet the present author will not be surprised if Russian expertise is involved, perhaps through émigré Russian personnel rather than deliberate Russian government policy.

The orbiting of Iran's first satellite, if successful, will be hailed by that country as an epochal event, and rightly so. For Israel, it will mean that her territory will eventually be exposed to hostile scrutiny. For the US and the West, it will mean that Iran now possesses a global reach. A space - faring Iran will have no immediate need to develop an ICBM for global power projection. Like the Soviet Union's Sputnik, each passage of Iran's satellite over US, European or East Asian territory will be a reminder that any ICBM is but a space launcher with an overweight payload.