TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said the satellite would be purely scientific. But a month after its launch — and only weeks after the president said Israel should be wiped off the map — the head of Tehran's space program now says the Sina-1 is capable of spying on the Jewish state.
The launch of the Russian-made satellite into orbit aboard a Russian rocket last month marked the beginning of Iran's space program. Officials say a second satellite — this one Iranian-built — will be launched in about two months, heightening Israeli concerns.
The Sina-1's stated purpose is to take pictures of Iran and to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation. Sina-1, with a three-year lifetime, has a resolution precision of about 50 yards.
But as it orbits the Earth some 14 times a day from an altitude around 600 miles, with controllers able to point its cameras as they wish, Sina-1 gives Iran a limited space reconnaissance capability over the entire Middle East, including Israel.
"Sina-1 is a research satellite. It's not possible to use it for military purposes," said Deputy Telecom Minister Ahmad Talebzadeh, who heads the space program.
But he agreed it could spy on Israel.
"Technically speaking, yes. It can monitor Israel," he told The Associated Press. "But we don't need to do it. You can buy satellite photos of Israeli streets from the market."
The Russian company Polyot built the 375-pound satellite for Iran, but Iran had already developed the necessary infrastructure for its space program. The program represents Tehran's drive to prove it can produce advanced technology on its own.
Similarly, Iran has said its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed at producing electricity and showcasing the country's technical prowess — though the United States believes the program secretly aims to produce nuclear weapons.
The satellites could be a response to Israel's Ofek-5 spy satellite. Israel, a world leader in satellite technology, relies heavily on space-based cameras to monitor activities in Arab countries and Iran. The Ofek-5, launched in 2002, overflies Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Israel hoped a more sophisticated Ofek-6 satellite would enhance its coverage of Iran, but in 2004 the satellite plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after launch, dealing a blow to Israeli efforts to keep an eye on Iran's controversial nuclear program.
"We know that they spy on us. What they are trying to do is look for places where a mega-terror attack can take place," said Efraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister and current chairman of the Israeli parliament's defense subcommittee.
"Most important, the Europeans, gulf countries and Central Asia should be very much concerned about the ambition of the Iranian regime," he said.
Sneh said Iran's "spy program from space" is part of a "strategy to become a global military power" promoted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also underlined Israel's concern over Iran's ballistic missile program, which has developed missiles capable of reaching Israel.
Iran's launch of the Sina-1 from the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia was a major step in the country's long-term ambitions.
"That we've joined countries enjoying space technology is a tremendous achievement," said Talebzadeh. "Although Sina-1 has been built by Russia, Iran's technicians have learned a lot about satellite building and space."
He said Iran will launch its domestically built satellite, known as Mesbah, into orbit in a month or two, also from Russia. Iran used Italian technology to build Mesbah, which like Sina-1 is a reconnaissance satellite that Iran says will be used to monitor natural phenomena on its own territory.
"Mesbah is ready for launch now," Talebzadeh said.
Iran's next step will be the launch of a satellite on an indigenous rocket.
Iranian officials have said the country has been developing a Shahab-4 missile that will be used to launch a satellite into space. Iran has already upgraded its Shahab-3 missile, which now has a range of more than 1,240 miles. Authorities have not given details on when the Shahab-4 will be ready.
In January, Iran signed a $132 million deal with a Russian firm to build and launch a telecommunications satellite called Zohreh, or Venus. Its launch is planned within the next two years.
That satellite will facilitate communications in remote parts of Iran, increase the number of land and mobile telephone lines, boost Internet service and improve radio and television coverage.
Iran plans to launch four more satellites by 2010 to increase the number of land and mobile telephone lines to 80 million from 22 million, and Internet users to 35 million from 5.5 million in the next five years.