More on Iran's Satellite...
There's some sophistication that's worrying...
The real sophistication of the Safir lies in its second stage, with its elegant configuration and lightweight design. Its propulsion is based on the more modern technology of storable liquid propellants that can be kept almost indefinitely inside the missile, making it launch-ready at any moment -- a significant advantage for military missiles. The U.S. used this technology in the past and so do some of Russia's contemporary ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
A cleverly designed clamshell nose fairing (a protective cover), evidently made of composite materials, shields the Omid satellite during the Safir's liftoff. Such fairings are key elements not only in space launchers but also in multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.
The Safir ground support system is also remarkable. The missile is transported by and fired from a Shahab ballistic missile mobile launcher, while a hinged service tower provides access for the ground crews.
Contrary to statements such as David Albright's, the Safir demonstrates a fair amount of sophistication for an initial launcher. The question remains whether this sophistication is indigenous and what features, if any, have been imported from abroad. Some of the Safir's features bear the telltale signs of previous space launching experience, implying outside help. Such help could come from any country that possesses Soviet-era missile and space technology. Yet the Safir is far more advanced than North Korea's space launcher. This fact -- and the magnitude of the entire Iranian space enterprise -- indicates that much of the success is homegrown.
The magnitude of the Safir launch becomes more apparent when we consider it alongside the much less advertised launch of the Sajeel two-stage solid-propellant ballistic missile that preceded it in November 2008. Within the space of four short months the Iranians demonstrated a mastery of three different rocket propulsion technologies (liquid, storable liquid, and large diameter solid), three different thrust vectoring technologies (graphite jet vanes, tungsten jet vanes, gimbaled rocket motors), two systems of stage separation, and an embryonic multiple-warhead nose fairing. All the above are proscribed technologies whose international transfers are controlled by the Missile Technology Control Regime and by the national legislations of its subscribing countries. By rights, none of those technologies should have been available to Iran. This is a significant setback to international nonproliferation efforts and an encouragement to future proliferators.
To argue that the Safir is too puny to be used as an ICBM is to miss the big picture. It is the technology and talent behind the Safir that is cause for trepidation. Taken in context, the Safir demonstrates scientific and engineering proficiency coupled with global-range missile technology in the hands of a radical regime and a nuclear wannabe. Iran's disclosed road map to space includes more capable, heavier and higher orbiting satellites. This will require heftier space launchers, the construction of which would enrich Iran's rocket-team experience and whose building blocks could easily be used for ICBMs in due time.