SPND joins the space race


Talks between the world powers and Iran are currently inching along in Vienna, lest anyone ever doubt the powers of schnitzel and bier to help build geopolitical harmony. And with every teeth-pulling concession the P5+1 draws out of Iran, the thank-god process of Tehran coming in from the cold continues.

Meanwhile, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s military nuclear research organisation, SPND (سازمان سپند از محسن فخری زاده), is finding itself squeezed into a corner: SPND is forbidden from actually building nuclear weapons, but the taint of their old corporate mission - erm, building nuclear weapons - is very, very hard to wash away.

And the IAEA, for one, won’t forget what Fakhrizadeh was up to in the years prior to 2004.

So what does a good 21st century organisation like SPND do in these circumstances?

It seems that Fakhrizadeh is taking a leaf from a management consultant’s corporate strategy manual: for some time now, the vibe at SPND’s Sanaye Street HQ (خیابان صنایع) has been all about diversification.

Take this news tidbit. Mehr News has recently reported Iran’s plans to develop its first “space radiation laboratory”. Mehr reports that this project will be led by Iran’s Astronautic Research Institute (پژوهشکده سامانههای فضانوردی), the place where unwitting simians become space monkeys and angry Persian felines resist becoming space cats.

ARI’s head, Dr Mohammad Ebrahimi (دکتر محمد ابراهیمی) is super excited about this new laboratory - and about the other research organisation that he’s partnering with to get the lab designed and built. You’re probably not surprised to hear his mystery partner is the one and only Defence Innovation and Research Organisation (سازمان پژوهشهاي نوين دفاعي), SPND. They’ve even allowed their sort-of-secret name to be cited in the Mehr News press report.

Space monkeys are so hot right now. But that doesn’t mean that SPND is signing up to build Iran’s first space radiation laboratory because it likes the thought of getting more ape time.

Here are three reasons why SPND is joining this project.

SPND gets to perfect technologies used to assure the survival of nuclear warheads in missile delivery systems.

Nuclear weapons - their physics packages, firing sets, and safety mechanisms - need to be protected from radiation. You don’t want a stray neutron prematurely kicking off fission, or delicate electronic components being fried by solar rays. And when nuclear weapons are lofted into the atmosphere on the front of ballistic missiles, protection against radiation becomes even more important. Nuclear weapons need protection from “space radiation” just like astronauts or space monkeys do.

SPND gets to muck around with radioactive sources.

You can’t conduct practical R&D on the effects of ionising radiation in space without using radiological sources - hot isotopes that generate alpha, beta or gamma rays. And neutron sources are also a nice-to-have for this sort of work. By getting its foot in the door of a lab devoted to studying the effects of radiation, SPND will get to play with (or, heaven forbid, control a stock of) these materials - which might well include nuclear materials like uranium or DU. I bet SPND scientists are salivating at the thought of getting legitimate, open access to materials that they usually have to avoid, or pretend not to have.

SPND gets access to a lucrative funding stream.

Iran’s space program (rather like its centrifuges) is not going away. The country sees its successful lofting of satellites and space monkeys as a particular point of pride - and to some extent, rightly so. As a consequence, Tehran will probably continue shovelling money into research projects devoted to space exploration for a long time to come. SPND, as we might expect, wants a piece of this funding pie - and the radiation lab is a good place to start. It’s also a revenue stream that is much more immune to being severed than SPND’s traditional work on nuclear weapons technology.

I guess you can’t blame SPND for joining the space race. But in sum, Grumpy Space Cat is not happy. You shouldn’t be either.

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