Published November 29, 2005
TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's space agency is trying to snap up technology from abroad as fast as possible for its satellite program, fearing the West will seek to impose restrictions like those put on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran has major ambitions in space, looking to show off its technological abilities, monitor its neighborhood — where the United States has hundreds of thousands of troops — and establish itself as a regional superpower.
Others are concerned about the program's military applications, particularly Israel, whose existence is opposed by the hard-line Islamic regime in Iran. Iran's Shahab-3 missile, with a range of 1,240 miles, already can reach Israel as well as U.S. forces across the Middle East.
Iran says it only wants to be able to put its own satellites in space to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation and improve its telecommunications.
It makes similar peaceful claims for its atomic program, but Washington and others suspect the real aim of that work is to acquire nuclear weapons and have sought to clamp down on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran worries its space program will be targeted, too.
"The moment they feel Iran has made a breakthrough, they will impose restrictions more than those they have imposed on Iran's nuclear program," said one space official, Mohammad Reza Movaseghinia.
Iran joined the space club last month when it launched its first small satellite, the Sina-1, aboard a Russian rocket.
That orbiter was Russian-made, but Iran built its second satellite, the Mesbah, with help from the Italian company Carlo Gavazzi Space. Mesbah is due to be carried into space by a Russian rocket in about two months.
The two satellites will give Iran a limited capability to monitor the entire Middle East.
Iran's next goal is to launch a satellite with one of its own rockets. Iranian officials say they are developing a Shahab-4 missile that could lift a satellite into orbit, but have not given details on when it will be ready.
"We have to move quickly and achieve our goals in space. Otherwise, we will face political, economic and security threats," Movaseghinia said.
Space agency officials have not given details on what technology or expertise they need from abroad, but they have been racing to learn as much as they can. Under its 20-year plan, Iran aims to become a technological powerhouse of western Asia and a regional superpower by 2025.
Aerospace faculties have mushroomed at Iranian universities in recent years, and Iranian technicians are being trained in Italy, Russia and China on how to design and build satellites. The government has allocated $500 million on space projects for the next five years, Communication Minister Mohammad Soleimani said last week.
Iran is now the world's 43rd country owning a satellite, but the government aims higher.
"We have to build our own satellites, our own launchers. We need to be one of eight top countries mastering space technology," said Ahmad Talebzadeh, the head of the Iranian Space Agency.
Iranian officials point to America's use of space to monitor Afghanistan and Iraq before invading them and say they need similar abilities for their country's security.
Israel also is a leader in satellite technology. Cameras on its Ofek-5 spy satellite have been keeping tabs on activities in Arab countries and Iran since 2002.
Iran says the Sina-1 satellite is capable of monitoring Israel but has no military purposes. Officials describe it as a research satellite and say its camera can't pick out features that are smaller than 50 yards across. U.S. satellites can detect objects just a few feet wide.
Russia, which has helped the Iranians with their nuclear program, appears to be the main partner in transferring space technology to Iran.
"Nuclear officials told us that they don't have a good experience of dealing with Russia," said Talebzadeh, referring to Moscow's slowness in completing a nuclear power plant in Iran. "But countries we can obtain technology from is limited. And we can't ignore the fact that Russia is a world leader in space technology."
In January, Iran signed a $132 million deal with a Russian firm to build and launch a telecommunications satellite within the next two years.
Iran has also signed agreements to launch a joint satellite with China and Thailand.
"We are at the very beginning of a long, long road in space technology. But we have the potential to develop an indigenous space program," said Mohammad Entezari, who is in charge of Iran's Mesbah satellite project.