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Iran enters space, rockets at the ready

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A mouse, two turtles and a bunch of worms may not sound like much of a threat compared to Iran’s estimated 8,000 centrifuges that are working overtime to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear warhead.

But the critters are representative of another track in Tehran’s determined effort to build its military into a force to be reckoned with.

The creatures were launched into space and successfully recovered, according to an official announcement in February. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the accomplishment as “the dawn of a new era of national development” and said that Iran would eventually send men into space.

The United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies are less worried about Iranian astronauts than they are about Tehran’s rapidly expanding technical expertise in advanced rocketry and its potential to develop a credible delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

Over the last 18 months, Iran has apparently notched several significant achievements in its missile program. On the same day that it announced the launch and recovery of its space menagerie, Tehran also displayed a mock-up of the Simorgh-3, a sophisticated two-stage liquid-fueled rocket with four times the payload capacity of its current arsenal of Safir-2 missiles.

Another achievement came in February 2009, when Iran used the Safir to launch a domestically produced satellite into orbit, joining the elite club of eight nations (the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Japan, China, India and Israel) that have this capacity. Iran’s success is especially noteworthy in that was accomplished despite years of punishing sanctions.

And finally, in November 2008, Iran tested the Sajjil, its first multi-staged solid-fuel missile.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert and Iran specialist at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Sajjil and the Simorgh were the most worrisome developments.

“The Sajjil is very significant. It would extend the reach of missiles armed with nuclear weapons,” he said. “If Iran is able to produce a warhead of one ton or less, the Sajjil could put it in reach of Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Iranian engineers appear to have the technical know-how to produce weapons-grade uranium, but have not yet done so. Iran’s claim that both its nuclear ambitions and its missile program are peaceful has been met with universal skepticism.

According to Fitzpatrick and other experts, the Sajjil represents an important overall strategic advance because missiles propelled by solid fuel are more portable and therefore less vulnerable to pre-emptive strike.

“With solid fuel there’s less time between set-up and launch,” explained Fitzpatrick. “Its survivability is greater.”

The Simorgh-3, which was displayed in mock-up form during ceremonies in Tehran two months ago, takes Iran’s missile program yet another step forward.

“The engine clusters displayed [on the mock-up] — this is a possible new direction in their missile program. They had not gone down the road of clustered engines before, and now they seem to be going this way,” Fitzpatrick said.

Jane’s, the defense industry analyst group, reported that the Simorgh features a cluster of four-liquid-fueled engines and a supporting structure attached to the first-stage rocket body.

“This is the first known use by Iran of a first-stage multi-engine rocket propulsion system,” Jane’s said.

Fitzpatrick noted that with the Sajjil and the Simorgh, Iran seemed to be focusing its resources on developing short- and medium-range missiles, which pose no direct threat to U.S. but a very serious threat to Iran’s rivals and enemies in the region.

Iran’s immediate worry is a preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities by the U.S. or Israel. The Iranian regime warned that if attacked it would retaliate by hitting U.S. bases in the region. Iran’s growing prowess in missile technology make the threat credible, and Tehran has backed up its words with a series of war games in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. response has been to beef up the anti-missile defenses of its fleet in the Gulf. It has also offered to extend land-based Patriot anti-missile defense systems to its allies in the Gulf.

“There’s a lot of nervousness in the region, especially after the war games when Iran tested its missiles,” said Christian Koch, a security specialist at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai-based research organization.

“That’s why several GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries decided to accept the U.S. offer to strengthen missile defenses,” he said.

Although the U.S. has not identified the recipients of the Patriot batteries — these countries do not like to highlight their dependence on the U.S. — it is understood that Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to accept the American missile shield.

“It’s ultimately about how you protect your country,” Koch said. “The leadership and the majority of the public do worry about the threat from Iran and they have accepted that the United States is the ultimate guarantor of their security.”

The U.S. and Israel continue to be the most bellicose critics of Iran’s nuclear ambitions even though a nuclear Iran would not appear to pose a genuine danger to either. Iran is far from mastering the technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S., and while it could conceivably hit Israel with a crude weapon, it would suffer an annihilating counterattack.

But Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and its focus on short- and medium-range missiles do represent a clear and present danger to its smaller Persian Gulf neighbors, according to Koch.

“Iran’s strategy is to be recognized as the supreme power in the Gulf,” said Koch. “Iran’s nuclear program is an additional shield for them to build up hegemony in the region without facing the threat of credible retaliation.”

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