October 14, 2016 | Policy Brief

Exporting Iran’s Revolution to Space

October 14, 2016 | Policy Brief

Exporting Iran’s Revolution to Space

Iran is seeking cooperation with NASA, the head of Tehran’s space agency said last week. “We are interested in having cooperation,” he said, adding, “When you are in orbit, there is no country and race.” The space chief’s remarks were Iran’s first-ever indication of openness to space collaboration with the U.S., but should be met with caution: The Islamic Republic is likely to use space exploration and satellite launches as a cover for advancing its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program.

Space exploration could also provide Tehran with “counterspace capabilities” – such as denial and deception – while enhancing its satellite-monitoring capabilities. Worse, collaboration with the West could help Tehran develop rockets capable of near-earth orbit, similar to those of ICBMs.

In 2011, Congress banned cooperation with China over concerns it could gain access to sensitive materials to further its military capabilities. Congressional intervention ultimately barred Beijing from the International Space Station, and should be considered in the Iranian case as well.

From Washington’s perspective, the strongest argument for NASA cooperation with Iran is that it may provide intelligence on the Islamic Republic’s space program. But this information would come at too high a price.

Improvements in space-launch vehicles (SLVs), for example, would be useful for ICBMs. Iran’s successful SLVs, like the multi-stage Safir and two-stage Simorgh, are derived from the liquid-fueled Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile – itself a variant of the North Korean Nodong-A.

A 2013 report from the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center cited the Simorgh as offering Tehran “a test bed for developing ICBM technologies,” and in April 2016, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said it had the potential to be updated and reconfigured as an ICBM. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has put it most succinctly: “Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles … provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.”

Since last summer’s nuclear deal, Iran has sought to present itself as a normal state committed to rejoining the international community. Tehran’s attempt to coordinate with Washington’s space agency appears to be part of that same campaign, but is ultimately a bid to gain international legitimacy for its illicit ballistic-missile development. Congress and the White House must stand firm in denying it that legitimacy.

Tyler Stapleton is deputy director of Congressional relations at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst