Iran's New Satellite Challenges China

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 ·

A provocative new satellite named Omid (Hope), which was launched by Iran last week, has certainly made its mark in space. For China, Omid represents an unusual opportunity, indeed a gift from Iran. The longstanding debate about China's role with Iran in space has suddenly changed. Now China has a chance to step onto the world stage as the world evaluates what Iran is doing, and whether or not China is true to its word when it talks about its peaceful activities in space - which definitely involves its longstanding relationship with Iran. Unfortunately, China often does a poor job of getting its message out, and Beijing is not getting the job done here either. In other words, China can see the opportunity straight ahead, but for a variety of reasons, it risks dropping the ball altogether. Before Omid, China's ongoing and often covert support of Iran's development of ballistic missile technology was always a hot topic whenever Iranian missile and space programs were on the table. Now, China's behind-the-scenes role has been almost forgotten entirely. With its new satellite in orbit, the focus is both on the state of Iran's ballistic missile systems, and on how soon Israel will wipe out all of Iran's space facilities along with all of its nuclear facilities. By the way, this writer spotted Omid for the first time last Thursday, early in the evening, as it flew by low to the horizon well northwest of Maine. Last time we checked, no mention whatsoever of it appears on the English-language section of the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) website, which, like the website maintained by the China National Space Administration, is of very limited value to the international community of space enthusiasts.

Iran is pursuing basic research in space technology via Omid. At least that is what Parviz Tarikhi, a senior ISA official who heads the Microwave Remote Sensing Department at the Mahdasht Satellite Receiving Station in Iran, wants the world to believe. Tarikhi responded almost immediately via e-mail to several questions submitted to him by Asia Times Online. He is no doubt aware that his core response may not sit well with critics on the far right, particularly those who are now going to have to step back and at least acknowledge that Iran's space program is really no different than any other nation's. The ISA has been involved in various peaceful United Nations-sponsored joint space activities for decades, and Iran is a participant in another forum, the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). China organized ASPCO in 2005, and it now includes Iran along with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey. While there will be no attempt made here to somehow assert that China exerts any real influence over Iran's activities in space via APSCO, China stands to benefit enormously from anything that calls attention to, or otherwise underscores, China's efforts to foster the civilian and peaceful side of the global dual-use space technology agenda. As an established regional space forum in Asia, APSCO has served this purpose well.

Besides having much to say about APSCO, Tarikhi's broader track record to date cannot be dismissed or overlooked. He has contributed years of service to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS). Among other things, he co-chaired the Action Team of UNISPACE-III which has tried to develop a comprehensive worldwide environmental monitoring strategy. He and other ISA personnel have worked closely with senior officials from countries like Nigeria and Indonesia, something that US President Barack Obama might ponder. In fact, as a senior member of the ISA team, Tarikhi's record embodies the ISA's commitment to developing assets in space both for peaceful purposes and for use as part of various multinational space projects. In an article published in "Position" magazine last June entitled, "Iran's Ambitions in Space" Tarikhi emphasized that "Iran has pursued a space program for many years. It first embraced the idea of using space and its technologies for peaceful purposes in 1958, when it joined 17 other countries to establish the UN ad hoc Committee for International Cooperation on Space (which later became UN-COPUOS)." "However, it was the launch [by the US] of ERTS - which later became Landsat-1 - in 1972 that spurred real interest in remote sensing. Iran built a facility at Mahdasht, 65 kilometers west of Tehran, to obtain remote sensing imagery from the satellite," he wrote. According to Tarikhi, satellite-based remote sensing is one of ISA's top priorities. "Although the Mahdasht Receiving Station in northwest of Tehran was one of the first receiving stations around the world to receive [data and imagery] from Landsat, it failed to continue its activity properly and favorably due to the advent of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978," said Tarikhi. "This raised the idea of having self-owned satellites to secure the needs of the country for remote sensing data in addition to other demands [including] communications and broadcasting, for instance." [1]

Omid is described by Tarikhi as an experimental satellite that is taking orbital measurements while opening the door to "more sophisticated systems carrying the remote sensing tools as well". There is a definite link between what the ISA is pursuing in space via Omid, and what APSCO sees as one of its top priorities. "APSCO plans to develop remote sensing assets as one of its primary activities and programs. It would be beneficial for its members and would bring to them lots of economic and social benefits," said Tarikhi. "APSCO could be a successful organization perhaps like the European Space Agency. The [growing interest in] space science and technologies in the Asia Pacific Region is considerable. There are big players like China, India, Japan and Australia in the space arena in the Asia-Pacific Region. South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan and Iran are advancing rapidly. If these enthusiastic nations can join forces, and pool their potential and their capabilities in this regard, they will save a lot of time and money while benefiting greatly from the collective synergy and outcome." Far too often, discussions of military space applications and the phenomenon of space weaponization take on a life of their own, totally excluding the importance of scientific and basic research activities in space in the process. "Space technology applications can be oriented for both civil and non-civil uses. It is up to us to make a selection, and either pave the way, or place limitations and obstacles for each of these uses and orientations," said Tarikhi. "It is more than wise to use such wonderful possibilities for the benefit of welfare and wellness of humanity - and for its sustainable development - at the national and global level."
"In the meantime, it should be noted that such achievements require a high degree of expertise, abilities and comprehensive knowledge about the subject," Tarikhi adds. Highly specialized and talented human resources must emerge in each country, according to Tarikhi , who acknowledges that one cannot ignore the attitudes and visions of leaders in each nation who also influence and contribute to the pace, progress and developmental objectives of any nation's space program. Iran's Omid project clearly supports the objectives of APSCO, and shares elements with another Chinese space initiative known as the Multilateral Cooperation on Space Technology Applications initiative in the Asia-Pacific region (AP-MCSTA). Iran has participated in this project along with China and Thailand, to name a few. These three countries are contributing as well to a joint mission to design and manufacture the Small Multi-Mission Satellite (SMMS) which will function as an Earth observation and disaster monitoring platform. Tarikhi never mentioned the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) which was established in 1993 under the oversight of what is now known as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This happened in response to the declaration adopted by the Asia-Pacific International Space Year Conference (APIC) in 1992. While one encounters a few Asian nations that belong to both APSCO and APRSAF simultaneously, there are distinctly political overtones to the split between APSCO and APRSAF. India, Japan and South Korea, for example, are members of APRSAF but not APSCO, while Iran belongs to APSCO, but not APRSAF. Regional space politics in Asia are complex indeed. China's current involvement with Iran in space - jointly under the auspices of APSCO, AP-MCSTA and SMMS - have now been certified as entirely peaceful undertakings and valid scientific.

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