What's Iran Up To With Recent Rocket Launch Attempt?

Jan 19, 2019
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Earlier this week, Iran attempted to launch a rocket carrying a satellite into space. The Trump administration says their goal is really to develop long-range weapons. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel looks into what Iran is up to.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The rocket launched before dawn.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: That was video of the liftoff posted to an Iranian government Instagram feed. Iran later said it failed. The satellite it was carrying, built by an Iranian university and designed to monitor things like trees and farmland, was lost. But that did not stop President Trump from making a pointed accusation about the launch.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Iranian regime tested a space launch vehicle, which failed, that will provide Iran with critical information - if it didn't fail - that they could use to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability.

BRUMFIEL: Trump says the rocket launch was really about building a better missile, one that could hit the United States. So Iran claims its rockets are for scientific research. The Trump administration says it's all a cover for weapons. Is there any way to tell who's right?

Markus Schiller is the founder of ST Analytics, an independent consultancy in Germany. He's spent a lot of time looking at Iran's space program, and he says there are links to the military. For example, the engines Iran uses on its space rockets have a military origin.

MARKUS SCHILLER: It's actually a missile engine.

BRUMFIEL: But Schiller says it's not a very good missile engine. It's an old design from the Soviet Union, picked up by the North Koreans and later transferred to Iran. It's clunky and inefficient. To get even a small payload into space requires the rocket to be huge. It takes weeks to set up.

Also, Schiller says, based on photos, Iran's space rocket can't work as a missile. The second stage is just too small. To him, the launch looks nonthreatening.

SCHILLER: Iran always claims that they don't want to build an ICBM, but they want to pursue a space program. And that's what I'm seeing right now.

BRUMFIEL: But a peaceful space program could still be a step towards developing long-range missiles, right? Well, not necessarily.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: If you look at the history of missile development worldwide, space launch activity has never been decisive.

BRUMFIEL: Michael Elleman is a physicist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In fact, he says, in every case he can think of, it's gone the other way around. Nations don't turn their rockets into missiles; they turn old missiles into rockets. So the technologies are linked, but it's not a straight line. And Elleman questions whether the space program should be the focus.

ELLEMAN: I think we're spending a lot of political capital complaining about something that is not a direct threat or risk to the United States or the international community.

BRUMFIEL: Instead, he says the U.S. should keep the emphasis on much-shorter-range Iranian missiles. Those missiles are used by proxy groups, like rebels in Yemen, to threaten U.S. allies in the region. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.