By now I am sure we have seen coverage of Iran’s flight test of the Simorgh Space launch Vehicle. Initial reports suggested that Iran launched a satellite into Earth orbit, but that was most certainly not the case. The Simorgh flight test was reportedly successful although some reports I’ve seen, citing US sources, suggest the Simorgh suffered from an in-flight failure. The Iranians themselves claim that the flight test was successful.
Commentary and analysis naturally focuses on the implications for the JCPOA, the UN resolution accompanying the JCPOA, and ICBM development. Are there any serious implications? The best brief answer is.
No, no and no.
The JCPOA, toward which Trump and other hawks have expressed opposition, is an agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear activities. President Trump, despite his expressed opposition and his reluctance to do so, has just certified that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA as it indeed is. There have been reports that Trump may well not recertify compliance in October, when he must either certify compliance or noncompliance again. Doubtless the Simorgh SLV flight test will politically help him to find noncompliance should he wish, even though space launch vehicle testing, indeed missile testing, is not a part of the JCPOA.
The UN Security Council resolution accompanying the JCPOA calls for, but does not mandate or require, Iran to stop research and development of ballistic missile technologies “designed” to deliver a nuclear warhead. Notice that the UN resolution encourages, but does not stipulate this. Regardless of this, flight testing a space launch vehicle does not equate to a programme designed to develop a ballistic missile capable of launching a nuclear warhead.
There is nothing about the JCPOA or the accompanying UN resolution that forbids Iran from continuing with its space programme.
The Simorgh is a two stage liquid fuelled rocket, 26 metres long (or height) and 2.5m in diameter. The Simorgh has four main booster engines, four North Korean derived Nodong engines (or 4 Safir engines, to use the Iranian designation). Iran’s smaller SLV, the Safir, uses one Nodong (or one Safir) engine. This gives each Simorgh engine a thrust of some 255 to 280Kn, which does include the 4 vernier steering engines. The second stage appears to employ four North Korean Musudan/Hwasong-12 vernier engines, a thesis consistent with imagery publicly released by the Iranians (see below).
The images below are of the Simorgh first stage engines in profile, and then the engine of the Nodong.
The Simorgh has more lift capability than the Safir. To date Iran has launched four small satellites into low earth orbit , and so the idea with the Simorgh is to lift heavier payloads to higher more stable orbits than those hitherto. Iran’s four satellites are the
Omid. Mass25kg. Apogee 152km. Launch date 02/04/2009. Decay date 25/04/2009.
Rasad. Mass 15kg.Apogee2 299km. Days in orbit 21.
Navid. Mass 50kg. Apogee 165km. Launch date 03/02/2012. Decay date 02/04/2012.
Fajr. Mass 52kg. Apogee 469km. launch date 02/02/2015. Decay date 26/02/2015
As can be seen Iran’s satellites reenter the atmosphere pretty quickly because of their low earth orbits. The Simorgh, according to the most oft cited source, which is Iranian, reputedly can deliver a 350kg satellite to a 500km orbit. A soberer analysis would have the Simorgh delivering payloads of similar mass to the above satellites, albeit to the higher, more stable, 500km orbit.
The Simorgh SLV, therefore, is an extrapolation of Scud based technology. That is what the 4 Nodong booster engines, and the possible Musdan/Hwasong-12 vernier engines, tell us. The North Korean ICBM programme, we know, to no small degree is based on a leap beyond Scud technology as represented by the March 18 Revolution booster engine.
If you look at the video, embedded below, showing the Simorgh flight test, you can see that the exhaust plume looks like that of the Nodong engine and even the profile when in flight really reminds one of the North Korean Unha SLV.
North Korea, with good reason, rejected using Scud extrapolated SLVs as the basis of its ICBM programme. The Simorgh is not a disguised ICBM. The Simorgh isn’t an ICBM, or a test bed for one, because the technical specifications cited above means it cannot launch a first generation nuclear warhead, of about 750kg, and deliver it to targets to a range of 10,000km.
And that’s not even to talk about reentry vehicles and reentry vehicle dynamics.
So, to be blunt, media reports uncritically citing Iran policy hawks, and statements from US sources and officials, asserting that the Simorgh SLV is an ICBM test bed are false, and should be criticised as such given the negative impact wide spread acceptance of them would have on the politics of the JCPOA, which is an excellent nuclear nonproliferation agreement.