Why Iran’s ‘Space Monkey’ Launch Claim Actually Matters

Earlier today, news broke that Iran claims to have successfully launched a monkey into space and retrieved it. While the event has been greeted with some mockery, the launch, if it indeed took place, may have been conducted against international law.

Iran’s simian traveler was reportedly launched in an “indigenous bio-capsule” to a height of over 75 miles before being recovered on its landing, according to the Fars state news agency. The launch is being billed by Iran as the prelude to sending humans into space, which they aim to achieve in the next five to eight years. Experts, however, remain skeptical that Iran currently possesses the technology required to send a living thing into space, let alone orbit.

The news of the supposed launch was not well received in Western capitals, however. When asked about “extraterrestrial primates” at today’s State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear that she could neither confirm nor deny that such a launch had taken place. If it had, though, Iran would be in violation of previous United Nations resolutions:

NULAND: Our concern with Iran’s development of space launch vehicle technologies are obviously well known. Any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles, as well as [satellite launch vehicle] technologies, and they’re all virtually identical and interchangeable. Just to remind, U.N. Security Council 1929 prohibits Iran from undertaking “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

The resolution in question, passed in 2010 by the U.N. Security Council, contained the most comprehensive international sanctions package on the Islamic Republic to date over its continuing uranium enrichment. Among the clauses in the text of the resolution the full ban on development and testing of ballistic technology cited by Nuland.

Today’s response by the United States to the possible space launch echoes that of then-State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in 2008. “The kinds of technologies and capabilities that are needed in order to launch a space vehicle for orbit are the same kinds of capabilities and technologies that one would employ for a long-range ballistic missile,” McCormack said at the time. Adding to concern about Iran’s claim is the announcement on Iran’s PressTV today that new short, intermediate, and long-range missiles will be revealed early next month.

If confirmed, Iran’s launch today could result in further action by the Security Council, much as was recently taken against North Korea. The Council last week approved a resolution tightening existing sanctions on North Korea following a “satellite launch” in Dec. 2012 that Council members said was actually a test of ballistic missile technology. “This resolution demonstrates to North Korea that there are unanimous and significant consequences for its flagrant violation of its obligations under previous resolutions,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said after the resolution’s passage. The U.S. Mission to the U.N. was unable to immediately respond to inquiries about whether similar measures are being considered against Iran.