Iran alarmed the international community this week by using newly-developed missile technology to launch a satellite into space. Envoys from six countries are meeting in Germany on Wednesday to plan a response.
Iran named its new satellite Omid, which means Hope
Envoys from six major powers are finding themselves confronted by a new twist in their attempt to get Iran to drop its nuclear weapons program: Iran has already developed the technology it would need to launch long-range missiles at Israel or southern Europe despite United Nations sanctions.
Iran announced on Tuesday, Feb. 3, that it had launched a rocket-propelled satellite into space, causing alarm on both sides of the Atlantic.
"In the case of Iran, one of the biggest concerns we've always had is that any country that can put a satellite into orbit has thereby demonstrated that they can send a nuclear weapon to intercontinental distances," Rick Lehner, a spokesman of the US Missile Defense Agency, told AFP.
Countries sharpen criticism of Iran
Officials reacted by threatening more sanctions and even military action, if necessary. Iran is already under three sets of UN sanctions over its nuclear program. But that apparently has not stopped the country from developing its rocket technology and many experts fear Iran is similarly increasing its nuclear capabilities.
Iran proved it has missiles powerful enough to launch a satellite into space
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the satellite launch "does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region."
The United States, he added ominously, has pledged to use "all elements of our national power to deal with Iran."
If Iran's reports of the launch were correct it would be a "worrying development and a disturbing sign," Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Tuesday as he met with his counterpart Hillary Clinton in Washington.
The West suspects Iran of wanting enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies, claiming its nuclear work is for peaceful energy purposes.
A blow for diplomacy
"We have been trying for years to stop Iran from developing its own nuclear program and its own nuclear weapons. So far we have not succeeded," Steinmeier said.
Yet finding a way forward will not be easy. The timing couldn't have been worse for Western allies hoping to start a dialogue with Iran on nuclear issues.
Iran has not been cooperating over its nuclear program
The announcement of the satellite launch came just a day before a long-planned meeting of senior diplomats from United States, Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia. They are in Frankfurt Wednesday to discuss Iran's nuclear program.
And the launch came less than a week before an important international security conference in Munich where many had hoped that the United States would talk directly to Iran, something which has not happened in 30 years.
While President Obama had signaled his willingness to support direct diplomacy with Iran over the nuclear issue, if Tehran does not abide by UN resolutions "there must be consequences," Clinton said Tuesday.
A technology leap
The technology for launching satellites "is very similar to ballistic (missile) capabilities," said French foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier.
"We can't but link this to the very serious concerns about the development of military nuclear capability," Chevallier told reporters.
Experts agree that the launch was a way for Iran to show off its rocket technology.
Iran insists it does not plan to build nuclear weapons
"In the face of world opposition and sanctions, Iran has joined a very exclusive club: those countries that have managed to orbit a satellite," Geoffrey Forden, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote on armscontrolwonk.com.
Based on data released by the US space agency NASA and reports from amateur observers, Forden said it appeared the satellite was successfully sent into a relatively low orbit. But not all rocket technology is created equal. It remains unclear if Iran used a three-stage rocket similar to Soviet-era Scud missiles or if it had developed a two-stage rocket, Forden told reporters. Forden said some amateur observers believe Iran used a two-stage rocket, although there is no official confirmation.
One unnamed US official who works in national security told reporters that he did not find the satellite launch overly alarming.
"It's certainly something to keep an eye on but it's not ringing any alarm bells," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Satellite technology is not new, and there are different levels of sophistication and I wouldn't put this in the category of advanced satellite technology at all," the official said.
Europe, Israel threatened
If Iran has long-range rockets, it means that the country could theoretically hit Israel or southeast Europe, experts say.
"If it was a two-stage missile then they had a huge jump in technology and that would be very scary," MIT's Forden said.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that any diplomacy between the US and Iran must be limited in time and backed up by "harsh sanctions and readiness to take action," if needed.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reacted defiantly to the suggestion that the satellite launch served military goals, saying it carried a message of "peace and brotherhood" to the world.
"This is a scientific and technical achievement and has no military aims," foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi told reporters.