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Iran’s space monkey launch does not pose military threat, say experts

Iran has reached a milestone goal in its quest to send human astronauts into space, by successfully launching a monkey into orbit and returning it safely to the Earth.

Iranian state television reported Monday that a rocket named Pishgam, meaning Pioneer in Farsi, traveled straight upward into the thermosphere to reach a height of 75 miles before returning to the planet’s surface. Hamid Fazeli, the director of the Iran Space Agency, said that “because of biological similarities between humans and monkeys, the latter were selected for the space mission.” He went on to predict that Iran would possess the capabilities to send a human into space within the “next five to eight years.”

Last year Tehran announced plans to build a new space center, following the reported launch of a mouse, turtle, and worms into space in 2010 on the back of an Explorer rocket. While security officials in the United States and Europe worry that Iran’s swiftly-developing space technology could serve a dual purpose of sending nuclear warheads aboard long-range missiles, experts said the recent experiment does not appear to have military implications.

“It doesn’t demonstrate any militarily significant technology,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity, told the New York Times. “This is a tiny old rocket, and what’s on top is useful only for doing astronaut stuff.”

The monkey-ferrying mission appeared to be focused more on testing life-support capabilities for humans in orbit than on any belligerent intentions Iran may have toward Western powers. The successful launch also holds propaganda value for the nation’s leadership, who have chosen the development of space technology as a symbol of national prestige.

Iran is a late entrant to the space race, as many readers may be reminded of similar widely-publicized efforts by the U.S. and Soviet Union to send animals, including monkeys and dogs, into space in the 1950s. Due to modern advances in space technology and information sharing, along with strong scientific relationships with Russia and China, Tehran may be able to quickly close the technology gap if it continues to focus on developing its space program.

Iran agreed on a joint project with Russia in 2005 to launch a satellite into space, which it has followed with several successful launches in 2009 and 2011 from a large complex near Semnan, about 125 miles east of Tehran. Earlier this month, the country released information about a new space capsule, based on Chinese technology, capable of launching human astronauts into space. Such technology could also deliver nuclear warheads to any point on the Earth’s surface.

While the launch of a monkey into space does not represent a major threat to Iran’s enemies, the country has been quite active developing military technology in recent years. Tehran has tested and strategically placed an increasingly large array of powerful missiles within striking range of Israel and parts of Eastern Europe. The nation has also repeatedly made international headlines by continuing to pursue its uranium enrichment program, despite diplomatic efforts and crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Tehran insists that its goals for the program are entirely focused on peaceful applications of the technology, such as medical uses.

Western diplomats working from Brussels reported that they had recently offered to resume nuclear talks with Iran in February, after the nation’s leaders turned down a proposed meeting in Istanbul in late January. Tehran has continued to defy Western demands to halt its nuclear program in the face of every non-military effort to obstruct its progress, including the 2010 Stuxnet worm that halted its centrifuges, and is believed to have been designed by U.S. and Israeli engineers. Without any new diplomatic leverage from the West, it seems unlikely that Iran will be deterred from its goals as a result of fresh negotiations.