Ahmad Vahidi said after a cabinet meeting Wednesday that the facility, to be called the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, would be completed and running by the end of the Iranian year (March 20, 2013).
Officials said earlier that the center – whose location has not been disclosed – will be used to launch satellites built in Iran and other Islamic countries.
“The children of great Khomeini, the innovative and leading scientists and experts from the Aerospace Industry Organization of the Defense Ministry, will send into orbit the new generation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s satellites from this center,” Vahidi said in June.
Since Iran in February 2009 joined an exclusive club of nations with the ability to put a satellite into orbit, it has sent several small satellites into space, using variants of its liquid-fueled Safir-2 rocket.
In 2010 it sent live animals, including a rat and turtles, in a capsule into space, although plans last year to send a live monkey were unsuccessful. All are part of a concerted drive, Iran says, aimed at achieving manned spaceflight by 2020 and a moon landing by 2025.
Given the relatively slow progress of China’s much better resourced space program, experts are skeptical about Iran’s declared ambitions, particularly as the country grapples with ever harsher sanctions over its nuclear activities.
Of greater significance is what the satellite-launching ability says about Tehran’s advances in long-range ballistic missile development.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied that the space program has military goals, but reaction from the U.S. and other Western nations to Iran’s first successful satellite launch in 2009 made evident the doubts about those denials.
“Efforts to develop missile delivery capability, efforts to continue an illicit nuclear program, or threats that Iran makes towards Israel and its sponsorship of terror are of acute concern to this administration,” the White House said in response to the launch, which came just weeks after President Obama took office.
Britain’s Foreign Office said the launch underscored “our serious concerns about Iran’s intentions” and “sends the wrong signal to the international community which has already passed five successive UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.”
Iran already has missiles capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.
The U.S. and Arab Gulf allies have been stepping up efforts to develop a network of missile defenses, with Iran clearly seen as the potential threat.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday recalled that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year discussed with Gulf states how individual missile defense plans in the region could be made interoperable
“The missile defense work that we’re doing is very much a response to the concerns that those countries could come at risk as Iran develops its capability,” she said. Nuland however distinguished between those initiatives and the current rhetoric about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The unclassified portion of a Pentagon report on Iran’s military power released over the summer said the country was expanding its missile inventories while improving accuracy and firing capabilities, boosting the missiles’ “lethality and effectiveness.”
It said Iran had developed short-range missiles with an effective capability against “partner forces in the region” and continued to increase the range, lethality and accuracy of medium-range ballistic missiles targeting Israel.
The Pentagon report said Iran’s multistage space-launch vehicles, launched in recent years, “could serve as a test bed for developing long-range ballistic missile technologies.”
“With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.”
If Iran does meet that prediction, and the test is successful, it will outdo North Korea’s attempts in the long-range missile field.
Pyongyang in 1998 fired a Taepodong-I long-range ballistic missile that sailed over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. In 2006 it tested a longer-range Taepodong-2 but it also failed, after around 40 seconds.
North Korean attempts to put satellites into orbit, using a carrier rocket identified by the U.S. military as essentially a Taepodong-2, failed in 2009 – although the flight lasted some 18 minutes – and again last April, when the rocket flew for just 70 or so miles before disintegrating.
Iran and North Korea have been collaborating in missile development since at least the early 1990s.