Iran failed to launch satellites in space but succeeded to deliver a message to the US.
On December 30, 2021, the Islamic Republic of Iran came close to launching three satellites into orbit. But what was a scientific failure can be construed as a political success from Iran’s perspective during the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
The launch sent a message to the US that despite sanctions, Iran can still develop the technology to fire a long-distance missile, whether into space or over a continent. If the sanctions were meant to curtail such activities, Iran demonstrated they are not working. Iran’s economy might suffer, but not its scientific progress.
What the latest launch has demonstrated is that politics of Earth, or the Middle East, in this case, have been projected into space, reminiscent of a trend that began with the superpowers, the US and USSR, during the Cold War.
Message in the missile
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan is remembered by his oft-quoted phrase: “The Medium is the Message.” His argument was irrespective of the messages sent by various forms of media, be it newspaper, radio, or TV, the medium, in and of itself, also contains a message.
For example, the news of a murder can be communicated by all three, but the TV will be able to instil greater fear into the viewer based on its broadcasting images of a crime scene or embellishing the event with ominous music. The medium’s message is that fear can easily be transmitted to mass audiences in the TV age.
The missile is also a medium. And the missile is the message. A missile/rocket might carry a physical payload, such as a satellite or a warhead, but it also carries a political message intended to communicate to adversaries, short of violence. That dynamic is what made the Cold War cold.
Cold War and astropolitics
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik, a prestigious victory for communism during the Cold War competition in the battle of ideas. However, if the USSR could launch a satellite into space, it could also launch a nuclear warhead that could fall back to Earth, particularly the USA. The message of the missile was that the same technology used to launch a satellite into space could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.
While the space programmes of the US and USSR were about prestige, according to the historian Douglas Brinkley: “For a world locked in a Cold War rivalry between the Americans and the Soviets, space quickly became the new arena of battle.”
Space launches and launchers were a means of refining military technology discreetly, in the name of space exploration, while simultaneously broadcasting these advances to adversaries and allies.
Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society, supports the argument on the missile as the message when he asserts that spaceflight is a “great signal for use of nations”. During the history of human spaceflight, each advance was a geopolitical signal on behalf of the US and USSR. It communicates a certain level of “technological organisational capability”, the ultimate being the ability to send humans into outer space and back.
As mastering space flight was a matter of prestige for the US and USSR during the Cold War, so was testing out missile technology that had nuclear applications. It became the same during the Middle East’s Cold War.
Geopolitics and astropolitics
According to the War in Space programme, we are living in a moment where “geography and politics are projected into the space domain”.
Historically, outer space was an area used to penetrate the Middle East. During the Cold War, the US and USSR could deploy spy satellites over the region. Later, satellites were essential for the global positioning system (GPS) to guide American cruise missiles and drones used against Iraq or various terrorist groups.
Space soon emerged as an arena for competition among Middle Eastern states. Among the Gulf states, Qatar achieved asymmetric power in the 1990s against Saudi Arabia via broadcasting Al Jazeera to its much larger neighbour, as well as the entire region, via a news channel that depends on a satellite. The United Arab Emirates is branding its credentials as a regional Sparta by embarking on a mission to Mars.
Israel had a monopoly on space technology and putting its own satellites into space. Iran’s current space programme serves as a means to challenge a regional rival as well as a superpower, the US.
Observers have charged that Iran’s space programme is a cover to justify its testing of ballistic missiles.
However, the facts belie how it is much more than that. If the missile is the message in Iran’s case, the latest launch sends a message to Israel: “We are catching up.”
The message to the US: “We are now in a stronger position during the nuclear negotiations.” Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal gave Iran the excuse to advance its centrifuge nuclear technology, its nuclear stockpile, and also advance its space programme.
The message to the Iranian people is that while our economy is suffering, we still take national pride in our attempts to reach space. Just as the US and USSR had a myriad of failures during their space programmes, each setback was a lesson learned.
Finally, the message of the missile is a global one, communicating that Iran is advancing, or at least determined to try to advance in a militarised-diplomatic game in space that began during the Cold War.
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