Alas, it seems this one’s for real.
NASA has posted the first orbital elements of the satellite and its third stage rocket body and, running the orbits backwards, they are totally consistent with a launch from the “Kavoshgar” launch site at 18:38 on 2 February 2009 (GMT). Both the satellite and the rocket body come together and pass over the launch site at that time…
Amateur satellite observers in the UK have have used the radio signals from 2009-004A to determine it is the satellite. Optical observations seem to indicate that the rocket body is considerably brighter (mag. 4.5) than the satellite (which varies between 5 and 7). This would seem to favor the two stage hypothesis: Iran has probably developed a more powerful fuel/engine combination for the second stage!
Safir’s name itself means “messenger,” and the rocket was built using Iran’s ballistic missile Shahab-3 technology as a first stage. It reportedly has a range of 1200 miles in its missile incarnation, so an advanced second stage could give the payload–or warhead–an intercontinental reach.
But with tracking systems showing an item in orbit, should we actually worry?
If the country has produced an orbital launcher, it’s got a de facto ICBM, albeit with an unknown carrying capacity. There would remain the complex matter of developing a payload that would act as a warhead.
See the Iranian-produced animation below the launch clip for the concept. North Korea, whose own missiles provided the blueprint for the Shahab-3 on which the Safir is based, is allegedly planning to test its new Taepodong-2 sometime in the next few weeks. Maximum reach: 4000 miles. Time magazine warned the left two weeks after the election not to get their hopes up about Obama revisiting Star Wars, citing quotes from during the campaign like, “I actually believe that we need missile defense because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.” I’d say their prediction is safe. Exit question: What does it tell us about the effectiveness of western sanctions against Iran that they were able to pull this off supposedly while being “squeezed”