Opinion

Is Russia going to provide Iran with a spy satellite?

Reports of a pending sale to Iran of the “Kanopus-V” satellite should, if true, cause both Israel and the U.S. considerable concern.

A satellite image of the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, Dec. 30, 2001. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
A satellite image of the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, Dec. 30, 2001. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

According to a June 11 report in The Washington Post, Russia is preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that will give it an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets across the Middle East and beyond. The report was confirmed by current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials who were briefed on details of the arrangement.

The plan would deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made “Kanopus-V” satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s espionage capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops. The launch could happen within months, according to the sources.

Putin’s denial and Iran’s dangerous gain

Asked about the satellite report in an interview with NBC, Putin dismissed it as “garbage” and denied the existence of such a deal. “It’s just fake news,” said the Russian president. “At the very least, I don’t know anything about this kind of thing.”

The “Kanopus-V” is marketed for civilian use and will be equipped with a camera with a resolution of 1.2 meters, which is not as good as the resolution of Western and Israeli or Russian and Chinese military satellites. Nevertheless, it is still much better than what’s available to Iran from other commercial satellites available on the open market. The Russian satellite will improve the image accuracy and provide Iran with the ability to control the imaging priorities.

According to the Washington Post, Iranian military officials have been heavily involved in the acquisition. Leaders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, officials said. As recently as this spring, Russian experts traveled to Iran to help train ground crews that would operate the satellite from a newly built facility near the northern city of Karaj, they reported.

Iran has a plan of its own to place a reconnaissance satellite in space. After several prominent failures, Iran last year successfully launched into orbit an indigenous military satellite, dubbed “Noor-1,” but the spacecraft was quickly derided by a senior Pentagon official as a “tumbling webcam.” It seems that much of the Iranian effort to launch satellites is actually cover for its long-range ballistic missile program.

If the report is correct, the relatively high resolution of the satellite, its collected data and Iranian control should cause considerable concern to Israel and the United States:

1. It may enable Iran to acquire updated information on Israeli, U.S. and U.S.-allied targets in the region. This is especially dangerous because Iran has developed in recent years many offensive capabilities such as ballistic and cruise missiles and underwater and aerial assault vehicles that are precision-guided. Satellite data could provide them with precise and real-time information, significantly improving their accuracy and lethality.

It should be noted that until now, Iran has relied on commercially available imagery, that is limited and sometimes omits sensitive military data.

This satellite may enable Iran to share valuable information with its proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, the Houthis in Yemen and the forces under its control in Syria. Since Iran supplies these groups with precision-guided munitions, the provision of accurate and near-real-time information will considerably improve the proxies’ military capabilities, as well.

Furthermore, the deal may accelerate Iran’s efforts to develop its own spy satellites.

In view of these concerns, it is imperative that the United States and Israel, together with their Arab allies, convey a clear message to Russia that this deal should not materialize.

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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