Iran enters space race with own satellite and rocket

Western nations worry that a Safir rocket could deliver nuclear weapons.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iran launched its first home-built satellite into space, marking a scientific milestone for the Islamic Republic and heightening concerns in the West that its expanding rocket technologies could be put to military use.

The Omid (Hope) satellite was launched by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Monday night as Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

State television showed Mr. Ahmadinejad, flanked by generals and officials, signaling the launch over a white telephone. They repeated "God is great" four times, then Ahmadinejad started the countdown by saying: "Congratulations to the nation of Iran and all the freedom-seeking nations of the world."

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The telecommunications satellite is to orbit 155 to 250 miles above the earth, which it is to circle 15 times a day.

Initial news reports and footage were not released until Tuesday morning, when the satellite was safely in orbit. Past Safir rocket launch claims have been disputed or later scaled back, and the Pentagon called one launch attempt last year a "failure," despite official fanfare in Tehran.

State TV noted that the satellite was built entirely by Iranian scientists, and showed technicians assembling the silver-looking square-box satellite, about 1-1/2 feet on each side. The interior electronics were separated into black boxes connected by wires. On the exterior, the antennae were a series of metal protrusions like thick, long pencils.

Iran is at loggerheads over its nuclear program with the UN Security Council, which has imposed three sets of sanctions and has demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. The UN nuclear watchdog has not found diversion of Iran's nuclear material for military use, but has yet to resolve remaining questions about Iran's nuclear plans.

US and other Western officials have voiced their concern at the growing range of Iran's ballistic missiles, and analysts note that there is little difference between a space launch vehicle and a long-range missile that can carry a warhead.

Iran has long said that its nuclear program does not aim to build weapons, but is limited to peaceful production of nuclear power. Even if Iran were able to build a weapon, making one small enough to be carried as a missile payload is a further challenge.

Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in June, and has made scientific achievement one hallmark of his presidency. On Tuesday he declared that Iran's "presence in space is officially registered in history."

While Western sources say that other Iranian claims about new military hardware or even nanotechnology have sometimes been exaggerated – or difficult to confirm – few Iranians will see entering space as a surprise.

Printed on the back of Iran's 50,000 riyal note, which came into circulation in early 2007, is an atomic symbol, and the words of Islam's 7th-century prophet Muhammad: "If science is to be found in the heavens, then people from the land of Persia will go and get it."

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