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Iran space launch to prep long-range nuclear missiles

US intel officials warn Tehran's upcoming test of space vehicle this month breaches UN nuclear sanctions, paves way to nuclear weapon.
By Ari Yashar
First Publish: 2/18/2016, 4:33 PM

Iranian missiles (file)
Iranian missiles (file)
Reuters

US intelligence officials have warned that the anticipated space launch by Iran later this month as part of its "massive" missile drills will likely violate a recent UN nuclear resolution against long-range missile tests.

Tehran is preparing to test a Simorgh space launch vehicle according to US officials, who told the Washington Free Beacon on Thursday that the vehicle is the base of Iran's secret program to develop long-range nuclear missiles.

The massive rocket runs on liquid fuel and was developed with North Korean technology, and was seen on a launch pad about 125 miles east of Tehran at the Semnan satellite launch center, according to the report.

The Simorgh was displayed openly by Iran on February 11 during a massive military parade marking the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Alongside the space vehicle were Emad, Qadr and Shahab missiles. 

US officials warned the paper that the Simorgh test will breach UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed last July outlining the implementation of the controversial Iranian nuclear deal.

The resolution forbids Iran from nuclear ballistic missile tests over the course of the next eight years, and Annex B of the resolution says Iran will not "undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology."

In response to the report, a US State Department official told the Washington Free Beacon that "our longstanding concerns regarding Iran’s ballistic missile development efforts remain, and are shared by the international community."

"If there are specific launches or other actions that are inconsistent with any relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will address them through the appropriate channels. And we will continue to work with our partners, and take any necessary unilateral actions, to counter ongoing threats from Iran’s ballistic missile program."

"Iran's space program is not about space"

Concerns over Iran's nuclear missile program were raised in a Pentagon report released last June, which warned that "Iran has publicly stated it intends to launch a space launch vehicle as early as this year (2015), which could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as such."

The report added that Iran “continues to develop technology capabilities that also could be applicable to nuclear weapons, including ballistic missile development.”

An American intelligence official was quoted in the report debunking claims by the Iranian government stating that the Simorgh can only carry a 220-pound payload, which is too low for a first-generation nuclear warhead.

According to the official, the rocket can carry a large nuclear warhead, saying, "it’s assessed as having a fairly heavy lift capability."

Regarding the Simorgh, Michael Rubin, an Iran specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, told Washington Free Beacon that the space launch vehicle is in fact a missile.

"To believe that Iran’s space program is about space is akin to believing its enrichment program was about medical isotopes," Rubin said. "The only consistent factor across Iran’s various programs is that you can piece them together to create a nuclear weapons program."

Rubin asserted that the Simorgh launch violates UN Resolution 2231, "but so long as Iran knows that legacy is more important than national security for (Barack) Obama and (John) Kerry, they can rely on the fact that the lawyer in the White House will be siding with whatever story Tehran’s spinmeisters craft."

Ballistic missile development

Laura Grego, a nuclear specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was also quoted in the report but showed more reservation in defining the Simorgh, which she said would be launched for the first time this month.

She noted that it is difficult to determine if the launch violates the UN resolution given a lack of specifics in the resolution's wording, adding, "I’m not in a position to make such a judgment about a potential Simorgh launch."

"I can say from a technical, not legal, point of view that the Simorgh as described appears to be designed as a space launcher rather than a ballistic missile, and appears incapable of delivering a nuclear weapon over long ranges, but it does appear to use ballistic missile-relevant technology.”

Grego added that the Simorgh is roughly the same size as the North Korean TD-2/Unha space launcher, but has two stages as opposed to the three stages in the North Korean missile.

Aside from the Simorgh, which it is feared could serve as a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Iran has also been testing its new Emad missile.

Tehran recently vowed to upgrade the nuclear-capable Emad, which has a 1,700 kilometer range, putting Israel and much of eastern Europe squarely in its sights. Iran held an Emad test last October 10, in breach of UN sanctions, and in response the US in January leveled sanctions on Iran's missile program - sanctions which Iran promptly vowed to defy

Iran in January publicly revealed its 14 underground "missile towns," with the latest facility being shown on Iranian media as convoys of the nuclear-capable Emad missiles were transferred in.