Page 1 of 2 Iran's new satellite challenges China By Peter J Brown
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
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
"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
"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." 
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
"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,"
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
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
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