EXCLUSIVE: Iran has launched a space satellite using technology that could “contribute to” the development of a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons, according to a United Nations-appointed panel of experts monitoring the issue.
Tehran intends to launch more such satellites, the panel said.
The most recent launch came last February 15, the experts noted, adding that the Iranian government has already announced plans to conduct three additional satellite launches before March 2016.
The vehicle used in the February launch—from a military base in northern Iran-- was based on a “space launch vehicle” that is variant of Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile, which has a range of about 1,000 miles. The Shahab-3 is one of two Iranian missiles that the experts say “are believed to be potentially capable of delivery of nuclear weapons.”
The experts noted that the future satellites will be boosted aloft “from more powerful launchers and on the back of bigger carriers.”
Iran’s missile development—peaceful or not-- is one of the murkier and more contentious issues surrounding the ongoing negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the world’s major powers—precisely because ballistic missiles have been shunted to the side of a potential deal centered on nuclear enrichment activities that the Obama Administration is pushing hard to conclude by June 30.
U.N. Security Council resolutions that have sanctioned Iran for its nuclear weapons development have also banned Iranian work on ballistic missile programs that could deliver the weapons. But missiles were not mentioned in the interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers struck last November, which has so far unfrozen billions in Iranian assets and which is supposed to be turned into a final agreement by June 30.
Last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called any Western expectations that Iran would restrain its missile development program “stupid and idiotic,” and called for the country to mass produce such weapons.
Even so, a 7-member U.N. expert panel which is monitoring Iran’s behavior on the proliferation issue while negotiations continue noted in its June 1, 2015 report that Iran’s officials and news media “have not been reporting any new ballistic missile developments” such as the “unveiling or testing of new types of ballistic missiles,” or tests of medium-range missiles it is already known to possess.
Satellite launches, however, are another matter. The experts noted that the February 15 satellite payload weighed 110 lbs. and was designed for “collecting imagery.” It was only a limited success: the satellite fell back into the earth’s atmosphere after just 23 days, even though it was apparently intended to stay aloft for 18 months.
Nonetheless, the experts added, it was Iran’s first satellite launch since two failures in 2012. They also observed cryptically that “the details of this case present similarities with the launch of another satellite by a Safir space launch vehicle in 2011” and analyzed in one of their previous reports.
And according to that earlier document, a majority of the expert panel concluded that “the satellite launch was related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” and the Safir satellite launch vehicle itself “made use of ballistic missile technology.”
Both of those actions, the majority concluded in 2012, were violations of U.N. sanctions resolutions that explicitly forbade any Iranian activity “related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”
The experts’ more diffident reference to Iran’s renewed program of launches over the next year gives Iran much greater benefit of the doubt this time.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell