Iran announced on February 7, 1999 that it was testing a new intermediary range rocket, the Shahab 4, which reportedly could carry a one-ton payload into space. The Shahab 4 was reportedly based on Russian-supplied technology–- an enhanced version of the old SS-4. Since Russia was under pressure from America not to supply vehicles for weapons of mass destruction to Iran, Iran claimed that the Shahab 4 was merely a space launch vehicle. Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani explained: "Shahab-4 is intended to carry satellites into orbit and it carries no warhead."

If so, should the US be concerned about the assistance Russia is providing Iran in developing space launch vehicles?



There is very little conceptual difference between a space launch vehicle and a ballistic missile other than intent. As Robert D. Walpole, the CIA's National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs has pointed out "one is intended to put a payload into orbit, the other is intended to put a payload into the ground... So that if Iran develops a space launch vehicle, it would be capable of delivering payloads to points on the Earth." The only additional technology needed would be a reentry vehicle that could enter the atmosphere from full or partial orbit without burning up.

Even though the range of the Shahab 4 is presently limited to about 2000 kilometers (and therefore only threatens countries in that region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), it is only a matter of time, especially with Russian assistance, before Iran adds additional solid-fuel stages that extend the range to intercontinental status. In this regard, Walpole testified to Congress on the time-table of US intelligence analysts. "Most believe Iran will likely test an IRBM--probably based on Russian assistance--during this period [2006-2010]," he said "All assess that Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver nuclear weapon-sized payloads to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology obtained over the years."

Since nations do not build intermediary range missile simply to deliver conventional explosives, it can be assumed Iran is developing nuclear warheads for its Shahab missiles. According to a top Russian official in a position to know, Iran already has small nuclear weapons in its arsenal. In June 2002, General Yuri Baluyevsky, the Russian Deputy Chief of Staff, said at a press conference: "Iran does have nuclear weapons. These are non-strategic nuclear weapons. I mean these are not ICBMs with a range of more than 5,500 kilometers."

Presumably, Iran has the capability to fashion larger nuclear weapons. Its nuclear energy program that was begun by the Shah in the late nineteen-sixties has been greatly enhanced by Russia. At present, Russia is building six nuclear reactors for Iran, four at Bushehr and two at Akhvaz, as well as a conversion plant that can be used for, among other things, uranium enrichment. (In theory, Russia will control the spent fuel, but, as North Korea has demonstrated, such international controls are not necessarily fool proof. ) So, either internally or externally, Iran may be able to obtain the fuel for its weapons.

Iran has also obtained shorter-range Nodong engines for its missiles from North Korea. But Russia has provided Iran with the components, testing and expertise to develop much more sophisticated and longer-range missiles.

Collateral question:

Is Russia's motive purely financial or does it have a strategic interest in providing Iran with assistance for "satellite launch vehicles?"

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