By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON, July 15 (Reuters) - Iran is preparing to test launchlater this summer a medium-range multi-stage missile that could havea range of up to 2,650 miles (4,250 km), an independent U.S.specialist said on Thursday.
The missile, code-named Kosar, would carry a version of Russia'sRD-216 liquid-fuel rocket booster, the same engine which powered theSoviet Union's SS-5 missile, said Kenneth Timmerman, director of theMiddle East Data Project.
"The Iranians as we speak are in the process of stacking andunstacking missile stages for a test launch later on this summer atthe Shahroud missile test centre," he told Reuters.
Timmerman, who gave testimony on Iran's missile programme to aHouse of Representatives subcommittee on Tuesday, said he expectedthe Iranians would present the launch as a test for putting asatellite into orbit, just as North Korea did when it fired aTaepodong missile over Japan in August.
Iran has already announced plans to commission a communicationssatellite to be launched within two years. In February it said it wasbuilding a missile to launch satellites but Western defence analystssaid the missile, named Shehab-4, was more likely to be asurface-to-surface weapon.
The analysts said the Shehab-4 was largely derived from theobsolete Soviet-era SS-4 ballistic missile, which had a range of1,250 miles (2,000 km).
Timmerman said he had his information on the more powerful Kosarmissile from U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources. The CentralIntelligence Agency (CIA) had no immediate comment.
"It is the U.S. side which is tracking the activities at thelaunch site right now. They are analysing what they actually see(from satellite photographs). That's where they see the multiplestages and they see them put one on top of another," he said.
The most powerful missile so far launched by Iran was the Shehab-3in July 1998, with a range of 800 miles (1,300 km).
Timmerman said there was "concrete evidence" that Russia hadtransferred the RD-216 booster to Iran as part of what the UnitedStates says has been extensive cooperation between the two countrieson ballistic missiles.
"A transfer of this nature cannot take place without the highestlevels of the Russian government being aware. The Russians simply donot share our concerns about the Iranian missile programme," headded.
The United States has been trying to stop Russia helping Iran withits weapons programmes, apparently with mixed success. It has imposedsanctions on Russian scientific bodies alleged to have provided Iranwith missile and nuclear technology.
Russia says it will fulfil all its international obligations butalso continue to help Iran with its plans to build nuclear powerstations, seen in Washington as a possible channel for leaks ofnuclear expertise and material.
Timmerman said he thought Iran's ultimate aim was to develop amissile capable of reaching the United States, as a deterrent againstany U.S. attack on Iran. "This missile test is one step along theway," he said.
A more immediate goal is to assert its military strength in theGulf, "to show their neighbours that they are a power to be reckonedwith," he added.
He said that as far as he was aware the U.S. intelligencecommunity has not briefed members of Congress on Iran's latestmissile preparations, possibly because the Clinton administrationstill had hopes that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami would bringabout a political transition in Iran.
The chairman of the House Science Committee, James Sensenbrenner,said Timmerman's account of the Kosar programme was a good reason topass the proposed Iran Nonproliferation Act, which would restrictextraordinary payments by the United States to the Russian SpaceAgency in connection with the International Space Stationproject.
The Russian Space Agency controls Energomash, the company whichmanufactured the RD-216 rocker booster.
To qualify for such payments, Russia would have to take steps toprevent the transfer to Iran of goods and technologies for use inprogrammes to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballisticmissiles.
"If the information on the Kosar missile is true, Iran's progress... represents a sea change in the threat facing the U.S. mainland,"Sensenbrenner said in a statement.