Israel is currently leading in the Middle East “space race,” but several countries in the region are quickly catching up; Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are all developing their own space programs. Israel and Iran are among the dozen or so countries in the world capable of building their own satellites, launching them from their territory and maneuvering them in space.
As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and historically low oil prices, and amid wider tensions with the United States, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) announced that on April 22, it had successfully launched the country’s first military satellite, Noor-1, into orbit. The launch was carried out on the 41st anniversary of the IRGC’s establishment.
According to the IRGC, it used a three-stage rocket to put Noor-1 into a 425 km orbit above the Earth’s surface. It described the system as using both liquid and solid fuel. The signals from the satellite were received in the northwestern city of Tabriz.
The satellite was launched from an IRGC base near Shahroud, some 330 kilometers northeast of Tehran. The base is in Semnan province, which hosts the Imam Khomeini Spaceport from which Iran’s civilian space program operates.
The commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, Ali Jafarabadi, said on April 23 that the satellite launch is part of a “super project,” and that Iran will be launching larger military satellites into higher orbits.
IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami said following the launch that “today, we look at the Earth from space, and this means expansion of the strategic intelligence and information of the IRGC’s powerful defense force.”
The Iranian space program
Iran recognizes the strategic value of space, and historically Iran has always sought autonomy when it comes to strategic systems. In 2003, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president, the Iranian parliament approved the creation of the Supreme Space Council (SSC) and the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) as its executive arm.
Iran has compensated for its lack of a modern air force by developing long-range missile capabilities, but lacks intercontinental ballistic missiles. Iran is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and continues to advance its missile program; Iran’s space program is likely cover for the development of longer-range missiles. As with its nuclear program, Tehran has claimed that its space program has purely peaceful intentions.
Iran has two types of space launch vehicles (SLV), the smaller Safir and larger Simorgh. The SLVs were built as an extension of Iran’s ballistic missile program. In February 2009, Iran successfully launched its first indigenous satellite, Omid (Hope), using the Safir SLV. Iran has so far successfully employed Safir-class SLVs to place in orbit four satellites carrying various telecommunications, earth-imaging and environmental monitoring equipment. Eight other documented orbital launches have failed.
In 2010, Iran unveiled its two-stage Simorgh SLV, which improves on the Safir by harnessing not one but four missile engines (all based on North Korea’s Nodong missile), permitting a much larger payload.
The level of sophistication of Iran’s ballistic-missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive assistance from abroad, notably from North Korea, Russia and China. While North Korea furnished the basic hardware for liquid-fuel rocket propulsion, Russia supplied materials, equipment and training. China supplied help with guidance and solid-fuel rocket propulsion.
Iran managed to put a satellite into orbit in 2009, 2011 and 2012, but in recent years suffered several failed launches:
On Jan. 15, 2019, Iran failed to put its “Payam” satellite into orbit, as it was unable to reach the required velocity. Iranian Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari said the rocket “failed to reach the required speed in the third stage, even though it succeeded in the first two stages of the launch.”
On Feb. 6, 2019, Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch. Satellite images showed a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center on Feb. 6, while images from the next day showed the rocket was gone, and what appeared to be burn marks on its launch pad.
On Feb. 16, 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif revealed that his country had again failed to launch a satellite into space. Speaking to NBC News, he said that it was the second failed attempt in the past two months.
On Aug. 29, 2019, Iran tried again to launch a satellite but the rocket apparently exploded on the launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center. Less than a week after the explosion,
On Sept. 3, 2019, Washington imposed sanctions on Iran’s space agency (ISA) for the first time, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program.
On Feb. 9, 2020, Iran’s latest attempt to put a satellite in space ended in failure, marking the fourth unsuccessful attempt in a row to successfully put a satellite in space.
Responses to the launch
The United States claims that Iran’s space program helps it develop ballistic missiles. Iran’s SLV program could serve as a test bed for the development of intercontinental ballistic-missile technologies, as the boosters and other technologies used by the SLVs, particularly the Simorgh, are similar to those needed for ICBMs, meaning they could be converted to that purpose if desired.
The United States has warned that Tehran’s ability to place satellites into space represents a significant advance in its long-range missile capability, posing a greater threat to U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of violating a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Pompeo called for the United Nations to extend its conventional arms embargo on Iran beyond its scheduled end in October 2020.
“All peace-loving nations must reject Iran’s development of ballistic-missile-capable technologies and join together to constrain Iran’s dangerous missile programs,” he said.
Iran rejected Pompeo’s accusation, saying U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 does not ban it from launching satellites. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the United States and Europe for what he said was their misreading of the resolution and reiterated that Tehran’s missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Israel strongly condemns the launch of a military satellite by the IRGC, a terrorist organization recognized as such by the United States, and called for new sanctions against Tehran.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom also expressed concern, but Russia announced the launch did not violate any U.N. resolutions.
The launch of Iran’s first military satellite came amid tensions between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal and after a U.S. drone strike killed IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January. The Pentagon claimed on April 19 that nearly a dozen ships from Iran’s IRGC Navy had taken dangerous and provocative actions near U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. President Donald Trump warned that the United States would destroy Iranian gunboats that harass American ships at sea.
Iran recognizes the strategic value of space capabilities. Iran’s space program is authorized and guided over the long term by a Supreme Space Council, which reports to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit, and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
Iranian officials often discuss space and missile developments simultaneously, perhaps indicating the parallel nature of the program. They have openly admitted that the Shahab missile system has been used as the basis for Iran’s SLV.
The United States and its allies have long feared that the same satellite-launching technology could be used by Iran to develop long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.
Iran, which considers its space program a matter of national interest and pride, has denied those assertions and has said that Iran is not working toward a nuclear weapons program.
Shaul Shay is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.