The Times writes that the photographs show the launch site of a Kavoshgar 1 rocket that Iran tested on February 4. Tehran claimed that the rocket was intended to further a nascent Iranian space program, but The Times says that the photos suggest otherwise.
Analysis of the photographs taken by the Digital Globe QuickBird satellite four days after the launch has revealed a number of intriguing features that indicate to experts that it is the same site where Iran is focusing its efforts on developing a ballistic missile with a range of about 6,000km (4,000 miles).
A previously unknown missile location, the site, about 230km southeast of Tehran, and the link with Iran's long-range programme, was revealed by Jane's Intelligence Review after a study of the imagery by a former Iraq weapons inspector. A close examination of the photographs has indicated that the Iranians are following the same path as North Korea, pursuing a space programme that enables Tehran to acquire expertise in long-range missile technology.
Geoffrey Forden, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that there was a recently constructed building on the site, about 40 metres in length, which was similar in form and size to the Taepodong long-range missile assembly facility in North Korea.
The Times adds that the rocket launched from the facility in February was based on Iran's Shahab 3B missile, which is in turn based on North Korea's Nodong missile. Geoffrey Forden, a member of the UN team monitoring Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003, noted that while the test rocket did not indicate any significant advances in Iran's missile technology, the launch site had "very high levels of security and recent construction activity" and appeared to be "an important strategic facility."
If the Iranian facility is indeed developing a long-range ballistic missile, it would explain NATO's decision last week to move ahead with the missile shield program supported by the US. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that the Bush administration scored a key success by persuading NATO to approve the missile shield, which is meant to protect against missiles like those that Iran is linked to.
NATO members all supported the US position on missile-shield defense, which is to be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland. "There is a threat ... and allied security must be indivisible in the face of it," read the statement on missile defense.
But Iran has denied any hostile intent behind its rocket program. While Tehran has not yet commented on the Times report, after the February test of the Kavoshgar 1 rocket it stated its intent to use the technology for launching satellites, reported The New York Times.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad... said on state-run television: "We need to have an active presence in space. We witness today that Iran has taken its first step in space very firmly, precisely and with awareness."
Iran has said that it wants to put satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters and to improve telecommunications, as well as for security reasons.
Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar said Iran would launch its domestically made satellite, called Omid, meaning Hope, in June, Fars News reported.
But US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the launch "troubling," noting that "the kinds of technologies and capabilities that are needed in order to launch a space vehicle for orbit are the same kinds of capabilities and technologies that one would employ for long-range ballistic missiles."
Much of the concern of both the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, stems from evidence found on a laptop stolen by an Iranian in 2004 and turned over to US intelligence services. Among other documents on the laptop, investigators found "drawings on modifying Iran's ballistic missiles in ways that might accommodate a nuclear warhead," reported The Washington Post in February. But the problem is proving that the documents are legitimate.
U.S. intelligence considers the laptop documents authentic but cannot prove it. Analysts cannot completely rule out the possibility that internal opponents of the Iranian leadership could have forged them to implicate the government, or that the documents were planted by Tehran itself to convince the West that its program remains at an immature stage....
British intelligence, asked for a second opinion, concurred last year that the documents appear authentic. German and French officials consider the information troubling, sources said, but Russian experts have dismissed it as inconclusive. IAEA inspectors, who were highly skeptical of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, have begun to pursue aspects of the laptop information that appear to bolster previous leads.
"There is always a chance this could be the biggest scam perpetrated on U.S. intelligence," one U.S. source acknowledged. "But it's such a large body of documents and such strong indications of nuclear weapons intent, and nothing seems so inconsistent."
Despite the possibility of Iran developing a long-range ballistic missile in time, Mr. Forden says that they likely still have a long way to go. ArmsControlWonk.com, a blog on WMDs and national security, cites Forden's observations about the flaws revealed by the February launch .
Iran's February 4th launch of a Shahab-3 just keeps on getting more and more interesting; that is if you are interested in just how good of a missile the Shahab/No'dong is. Video from Iran's television show that there is a failure of the missile's thrust vector control system nineteen seconds into its powered flight. At that point, there is a brief flaring at the very end of the missile and an object is seen flying off for several seconds, until it leaves the video's frame as the camera continues to follow the missile. Tellingly, it doesn't just drop off the missile but is given quite a transverse boost.
Forden says that the debris indicates that the missile's graphite jet vanes, used to steer the rocket in flight, are being "eaten away" by the rocket exhaust. Such a problem can knock a missile severely off course, he adds.
So what does this mean for missile proliferators in general and Syria and Iran (and North Korea since they are all involved in the development of these missiles) in particular? It means that they are still having a hard time producing graphite tough and pure enough to be used in large missiles. It also indicates that a top priority for their missile engineers will be to develop other thrust vector control mechanisms.