The Duck of Minerva

Iran’s Sputnik

7 February 2009

Earlier this week, Iran put a satellite into space for the first time. The AP covered it on Wednesday, February 4:

The telecommunications satellite – called Omid, or hope, in Farsi – was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.

At least unofficially, some experts within the U.S. government seem to be trying to play down the importance of this event — comparing it without context to a Soviet launch more than 50 years ago:

A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed the launch and suggested the technology was not sophisticated. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering, the official said it appeared it “isn’t too far removed from Sputnik,” the first Soviet orbiter launched in 1957.

However, as The New York Times reported, not everyone in the government dismisses the significance of this technological achievement:

In Washington, the State Department called the event worrisome. “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems,” said Robert A. Wood, a department spokesman.

At the White House, Robert Gibbs sounded fairly hawkish too.

My dissertation had a lengthy case study chapter on the U.S. reaction to Sputnik — it was certainly not “ho-hum.” At the time, U.S. security experts believed that a state that could put a satellite into space could probably launch a missile soon. Threat perceptions soared. Sputnik dominated the news for weeks. It was a VERY BIG DEAL.

Interestingly, in its story about the Iranian launch, Voice of America quoted an expert who makes the launch sound defensive:

“They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded by nuclear states – Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and the United States,” The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione explains.

However, Sam Sedaei at the Huffington Post seems to think the media overplayed the alleged threat signaled by Iran’s satellite — and he’s not talking about the right-wing media. Sedaei criticizes the Times and The Guardian!

Despite this concern, I think the coverage was reasonably balanced and I applaud the Obama administration for exhibiting some concern without panic. As we all recall from the Iraq debate, there’s more than one way for public officials and media to address this kind of stuff.