Iranian officials announced on Tuesday that the country is preparing to launch three new satellites into space, renewing concerns from defense experts about Iran’s ongoing research into long-range ballistic missile technology that could help it fire a nuclear weapon at Western nations.
Mohsen Bahrami, the director of Iran’s space agency— which has long been suspected of providing cover for weapons research—announced that Iran would launch its newest satellite, dubbed "Friendship," later this year.
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"The Dousti (Friendship) satellite (built) by (experts at) Sharif University of Technology is the first satellite which will be launched in the second half of this (Iranian) year," which began on March 20, Bahrami was quoted as saying by the country’s state-controlled press.
Defense experts and former U.S. officials told the Washington Free Beacon that the test is likely cover for Iran to pursue illicit intercontinental ballistic missile technology, which could enable the Islamic Republic to fire a nuclear weapon over great distances.
Asked about the reports on Tuesday, a State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon that it will not take a position on the launch before it has occurred.
"We’re not going to speculate on the specifics of something that hasn’t happened yet," the spokesman said. "Our longstanding concerns regarding Iran’s ballistic missile development efforts remain, and are shared by the international community."
"If there are specific launches or other actions that are inconsistent with any relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, we will address them through the appropriate channels," the spokesman continued. "And we will continue to work with our partners, and take any necessary unilateral actions, to counter ongoing threats from Iran’s ballistic missile program."
Efforts are also being made to launch two other satellites within the next year, according to the announcement, which has raised concerns among Western defense experts about the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of technology that would enable it to fire nuclear weapons over great distances.
"Iran has always used its satellite program as cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Recently, however, the Defense Ministry has also bragged that it has made its UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] satellite-guided in order to extend their range and bypass the need for line-of-sight control," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and expert on rogue regimes.
Iran’s interest in this technology, combined with its newfound freedom under last summer’s nuclear agreement, should raise red flags on the international stage, Rubin said.
"Add to that mix that Iran can trade and sell both technologies with North Korea in exchange for inspection-proof nuclear laboratory space," Rubin said. "In effect, in a three-fer for the Islamic Republic, all courtesy of the noxious mix of Obama's ambition and [Secretary of State John] Kerry's incompetence."
Iranian officials further disclosed over the weekend that construction had begun on an advanced satellite with remote sensing capabilities.
U.S. officials have said that Iran’s space research could be applied to the construction of intercontinental ballistic missiles, work that is prohibited under United Nations resolutions governing the nuclear agreement.
"Iran has successfully orbited satellites and announced plans to orbit a larger satellite using a space launch vehicle (the Simorgh) that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as such," Vice Adm. J.D. Syring, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, disclosed in April.
Syring’s comment came on the heels of Iran’s last test of its long-range Simorgh rocket.
Iran’s test firing of ballistic missiles has emerged as a hot button issue in recent months as the Obama administration has worked against claims that the tests violate the nuclear deal. The Obama administration has claimed that the tests violate the agreement in spirit only.
The U.S. intelligence community has emphasized Tehran’s desire to acquire intercontinental ballistic technology.
"Tehran has placed significant emphasis on developing and fielding ballistic missiles to counter perceived threats from Israel and U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East and to project power," U.S. defense officials disclosed in a 2014-15 threat assessment.
"Iran has a substantial inventory of missiles capable of reaching targets throughout the region, including U.S. military bases and Israel, and the regime continues to develop more sophisticated missiles," the report adds. "Iran has publicly stated it intends to launch a space launch vehicle as early as this year (2015), which could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as such."
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that the entities responsible for building Iran’s space satellites have close ties to the country’s military industry.
"Iran’s desire to continue launching new satellites into space should be a point of concern to American officials," Taleblu said. "To me, this does not merely appear to be an instance of a developing country attempting to produce technologies to boost its status or prestige. Rather, it may have a very real security application. Many scholars and missile analysts have long-suspected Iran’s overly-adventurous space program to have been a cover to study, test, and eventually employ the technologies associated with the production of an intercontinental ballistic missile."
The upcoming tests could be a sign that Iran is seeking to refine its ballistic technology, raising concerns on the military front.
"It can be inferred that unless Tehran has reconfigured existing space-launch vehicles, it will either be the Safir or the Simorgh carrier rockets," Taleblu said. "As such, repeated testing of one launch-vehicle by Tehran may be an attempt to refine existing issues in the rocket’s staging process."