The Iraqi space program, defiance and imperialism.

Feb 08, 2023 4 min read

By Amir Taha

A space program was understood as a sign of independence and scientific achievement by many countries in the global south going through the process of decolonization, including Iraq. The official website of the Iraqi space program (which was still up in 2019) mentions that a space program is necessary “to achieve the political, economic, cultural and scientific independence of Iraq and to avoid depending on the developed countries that dominate outer space along with their ownership of various space services’’. While this sentiment was originally formulated in a time where state-led development was the norm for most Third World countries, the times have changed. The welfare states of the 60s and 70s are globally speaking not in place anymore. Most Third World countries have fallen in a spiral of war and despair since the 1980s which has forced them to find  new ways to strive for  liberation. This article provides a brief overview of the history of the Iraqi space program. By looking back at the Iraqi space program and comparing it to its current state, we aim to demonstrate how even the -originally- liberationist rhetoric of anti-colonial movements have been co-opted by the global Neo-liberal world order.  As we shall see the belief for an Iraqi space program still lives on in Iraq albeit in figments of hope.

Originally Iraq started with research systems that could instrumentalize communication through satellites in the 1970s, the Iraqi space program itself started however in 1985. At first it was strongly tied to the weapons development department and the on-going war with Iran.  When the Iran-Iraq war was over in 1988, Saddam had a legitimacy crisis due to the extensive financial debts and the many other horrific consequences  of the war with Iran. To partly reaffirm the myth of an almighty Saddam as the safeguard of Iraq, a space exploration program was developed. By the end of the 1980s  projects started that were meant for the purpose of space exploration (Harding 2012, 141-143)

Countries- Year to achieve independent orbital space launch.

1. Soviet Union 1957

2. United States 1958

3. France* 1965

4. Japan 1970

5. China 1970

6. United Kingdom 1971

7. India 1980

8.Israel 1988

9. Iraq 1989

10.Ukraine 1992

11. Iran 2009

Source: Harding, Robert C. Space policy in developing countries: the search for security and development on the final frontier. Routledge, 2012, 143

A well-known project was the launch of the "Al-Ta'ir'' satellite which was mostly intended to improve telecommunication systems. In addition, Iraq experimented with “alternative” launching techniques such as the infamous "Project Babylon". Then, former ruler Saddam Hussein welcomed Canadian engineer Gerard Bull to develop a space gun. The space gun was a canon intended to shoot satellites and spacecraft into the air. The Iraqi space gun "Big Babylon'' would be 156 meters long and a launch would cause vibrations to the power of an atom bomb. However, in 1990, Gerard Bull was murdered in an apartment in Brussels by the Israeli secret service because Israel felt threatened by an Arab country that was developing such powerful technology. Clearly the space gun had potential capabilities that went beyond satellite launches.

There was also the famous Al-Abid rocket that was successfully launched in 1989 by the use of SCUD missiles. In its three-stage launch Al-Abid was able to launch a satellite that orbited around the earth 6 times until it burned up. This achievement made Iraq the 9th country in the world to achieve an independent orbital space launch. American and British reactions at the time were typical and instantly demanded that Iraq should put an end to its space program, The pretext they used was that  it had the potential to develop into a certain military capability. Looking back, the sort of accusations thrown at Iraq at the time ring eerily similar to the false claims that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction’’ justification given by the US to invade Iraq. At the time this was seen in the context of a space cold war with “Israel”, who a year earlier was able to launch its own satellite as well. While plans for a space program preceded the Zionist satellite launch, parrying Israel was an important motivator.

Al-Abid Source: UN report UNMOVIC

Unfortunately, because of the first Gulf War, sanctions and the US occupation in 2003, all these projects were halted. The 2003 US occupation put a halt to  the Iraqi space program efforts. Initially however, shortly after the first phase of the US occupation was over (2003-2011), efforts to launch an Iraqi space satellite were renewed, but it was delayed once more due to the destabilization caused by ISIS  and a lack of budget.

Al Ta’ir Sattelite ( Photo: Sarmad D.S. Dawood)

Recently the idea of launching an Iraqi satellite has resurfaced. In early August 2022 the provisional minister of communications mentioned that Iraq is seeking out contracts with companies to launch its own satellite. Different companies from France, Egypt, Jordan have made bids to obtain Iraqi satellite projects. How  Iraq benefits from such a construction remains unclear , despite the fact that the provisional minister of communications claimed that there would be no strain on  the budget. Perhaps the intended purpose of these comments was promoting  Mustafa al Kadimi’s New Levant initiative. Coming at the expense of Iraq, this project  aimed to provide Jordan and Egypt lucrative projects under the guise of economic integration.  The attempted involvement of foreign corporations regarding a renewed Iraqi space program reveals the  co-optation into the Neo-liberal world order.

The fact that it was undermined by two American led wars and a mass assault by ISIS, as an extension of those wars and US allies involved in funding and enabling that group, shows the subversive and counter-hegemonic potential space exploration could have for decolonizing countries. Despite the dire situation,  it seems that the Iraqi space program has survived all these destructive episodes and the belief that it could contribute to becoming a decolonized and sovereign nation still persists.

Amir Taha is a historian at the University of Amsterdam researching the modern history of Iraq.

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