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With the Launch of Fajr in Space, It's Showtime for Iran Again

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In less than 24 hours from now, Iran will catapult another satellite in space. Fajr will become the fourth Iranian satellite launched within the last three years. Iranian Defense minister Brigadier Ahmad Vahidi is understandably over the moon at his nation's accomplishment and has declared it to be the ultimate display of Iran's scientific prowess 'despite sanctions from hegemonic powers.'

While Vahidi is having a field day in denouncing Western criticism, global monitoring agencies are turning their gaze towards the Persian Gulf, from where Fajr or the dawn embarks on its celestial journey.

I sit back and sink my teeth into a large piece of Iranian halva, pondering over the 'ifs and buts' of the imminent launch. I am at once teleported to three years ago when I was working with Al Jazeera's English news channel in Doha, Qatar.

It was a cold winter day laden with elements of suspense and anticipation. There was an incredible tightness in the newsroom. Iran had just announced the successful launch of Omid, its first indigenously built satellite, in space. On February 2, 2009, Iran joined an elite league of nations that had launched a satellite in space.

As reporters scurried for juicier details, the Iranian regime fervently celebrated the successful launch of Omid, an event that coincided with the 30th anniversary of the revolution in Iran. Britain, France and the U.S. expressed their deep disappointment, while analysts opined this could well be the game-changer for Iran. Provocative theories of Iran racing towards an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) were doing rounds faster than the speed of light.

All along this, I had my eyes set on Omid and its launch vehicle, the Safir-2. It didn't take much to notice that theories of Safir being converted into Iran's first ICBM were not quite accurate.

Safir's size was good enough to make it a satellite launcher, not an intercontinental ballistic missile. It weighed less than 26 tons and unlike the Soviet Soyuz rocket that put Sputnik in space in 1957, and that was later converted into the Soyuz R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, Safir's small size was a dampener. The Soyuz, on the other hand, weighed more than 280 tons and its gigantic size provided the much-needed impulse and lifting capacity to ferry considerable payloads.

However, Omid's successful launch did indicate Iran's growing ballistic missile abilities, increasing commitment to scientific sophistication and a die-hard political will to beef up its ballistic and space industry. There was no doubt that Iran was aiming for more potent and powerful missiles and space launchers. And it was the nature of this advancement that alarmed Western powers, more than anything else.

Iran, on the other hand, maintained that its space technology was for peaceful purposes and reminded the world that it was one of the founding members of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS). It had also been a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty since 1967; a treaty that prohibited any deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space but allowed signatory nations to freely explore outer space. However, its true intent has always been a bone of contention.

Ironically, while Iran projected Omid's launch as an example of its scientific glory, Omid itself did not serve any significant purpose while in orbit. To serve the bare minimum, it transmitted electromagnetic signals indicating its position as it went around the earth. Even its return was lackluster as it plunged into the earth after circling the planet for a few weeks, without achieving anything scientific or strategic. No one even took notice of it. The Iranians also preferred to maintain a silence over it.

As for Omid's launch vehicle, Safir-2; it was limited to injecting only small-to-medium sized satellites in space as its own size limited it from carrying anything above 100 kilograms, unless, of course, major modifications were made to it. Any good communication, earth observation or spy satellite weighs hundreds of kilograms and this means that the Safir-2 would be incapable of lifting it.

Safir-2 was not even suitable as an efficient missile. The simple reason being, its steering engines could produce only a combined thrust of three tons, which was sufficient only enough to carry Omid; a very small payload of 27 kilograms into a low-earth orbit. However, for an effective medium-range missile that could carry a first-generation nuclear-warhead, it should have a minimum payload capacity of 500-1000 kilograms. This was again beyond the capacity of Safir-2's low-thrust engines.

All in all, neither the launch of Omid in space nor the use of Safir-2 took Iran any closer to acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile. It simply did not have the scientific and technical sophistication then. Yet by maintaining an ominous secrecy and by issuing numerous veiled threats to the Western world, the Iranian regime has done a good job in pulling a fast one and keeping the world guessing about its true ballistic prowess.

Iran is known to adopt surreptitious means to prove its military supremacy. In 2008, Sepah News, the media arm of the Iran's Revolutionary Guard, issued an image in which four missiles were shown to be soaring through the sky. The picture became a major embarrassment for Iran as it was later discovered that one of the missiles in the image was 'photoshopped' and added as an afterthought.

Coming back to the launch of Fajr that is due to take place anytime in the next 24 hours, Iranian officials are describing it as 'an observation and measurement' satellite weighing 50 kilograms. Mehdi Farahi, Iranian Aerospace Industry Organization Director has already announced that Fajr would be launched into orbit by Safir-B1 rocket, which is considered to be similar to Iran's Shahab-3 missile. The Shahab-3 missile is, in turn, identical to the North Korean Nodong missile. If modified properly, Shahab does have an ability to deliver a nuclear warhead with a maximum payload capacity of 1 tonne, although its accuracy is questionable.

The accuracy of any missile as given by its CEP (Circular Error Probable) value is measured in terms of the probability of the warhead landing at a certain point within the radius of the marked target. For an effective kill-probability, the CEP of a missile should be much lesser than 200 metres. However, in Shahab's case it is estimated to be as large as 1000 metres.

What concerns Iran's latest satellite, Fajr, that's heading up to outer space in the next few hours, Iranian officials consider it to be a reconnaissance satellite that will remain in orbit for 18 months. That's the longest any Iranian satellite has ever been in orbit. Although, if one factors in Iran's record of pompous announcements, then one has to wait and watch for the truth to unfold. One can be assured of dramatic news pouring in soon.

I guess its time for me to pile up a new stock of Iranian halva and patiently wait for the dawn of Fajr, tomorrow. Will there be more photoshopped images coming our way? I hope not, but if they do, then I hope they will make the rocket fluorescent orange. You see, I have always wanted one of those.