The secret site where Iran is suspected of developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets in Europe has been uncovered by new satellite photographs.
The imagery has pinpointed the facility from where the Iranians launched their Kavoshgar 1 “research rocket” on February 4, claiming that it was in connection with their space programme.
Analysis of the photographs taken by the Digital Globe QuickBird satellite four days after the launch has revealed a number of intriguing features that indicate to experts that it is the same site where Iran is focusing its efforts on developing a ballistic missile with a range of about 6,000km (4,000 miles).
A previously unknown missile location, the site, about 230km southeast of Tehran, and the link with Iran’s long-range programme, was revealed by Jane’s Intelligence Review after a study of the imagery by a former Iraq weapons inspector. A close examination of the photographs has indicated that the Iranians are following the same path as North Korea, pursuing a space programme that enables Tehran to acquire expertise in long-range missile technology.
Geoffrey Forden, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that there was a recently constructed building on the site, about 40 metres in length, which was similar in form and size to the Taepodong long-range missile assembly facility in North Korea.
Avital Johanan, the editor of Jane’s Proliferation, said that the analysis of the Iranian site indicated that Tehran may be about five years away from developing a 6,000km ballistic missile. This would tie in with American intelligence estimates and underlines why President Bush wants the Polish and Czech components of the US missile defence system to be up and running by 2013.
The Czech Republic has now agreed to have a special radar system on its soil and the Polish Government is still negotiating with Washington over the American request to site ten interceptor missiles in Poland.
The Kavoshgar 1 rocket that was launched in the presence of President Ahmadinejad of Iran was based on the Shahab 3B missile, a version of the North Korean Nodong liquid-propellant missile.
Dr Forden said that the Kavoshgar launch did not demonstrate any significant advances in ballistic missile technology. “But it does reveal the likely future development of Iran’s missile programme,” he said.
At a meeting on February 25 between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Iranians, UN inspectors confronted them with evidence of design studies for mounting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles. The Iranians denied any such aspirations.
However, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the satellite photographs prove that the Kavoshgar 1 rocket was not part of a civilian space centre project but was consistent with Iran’s clandestine programme to develop longer-range missiles.
The examination of the launch site revealed that it was part of a large and growing complex “with very high levels of security and recent construction activity”. It was clearly “an important strategic facility”, Dr Forden said.
The former Iraq weapons inspector said that Iran was benefiting from the North Korean missile programme and following its designs. The Taepodong 1 consisted of a liquid-propellant Nodong (like the Shahab 3) first stage, a liquid-propellant Scud second stage and a solid-propellant third stage.
“The production and testing facility next to the Kavoshgar 1 launch site would seem well positioned to contribute to this third stage,” Dr Forden said.