Iranian Space Race

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Something is happening in the Iranian desert. In recent days, cars have pulled up to the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, and human activity around the building believed to be a “checkout” facility for rockets has increased, signaling that Iran may be gearing up for a space launch soon.

These revelations came to us via satellite images taken by Planet Labs, which the Associated Press obtained and reported Sunday. They show a support vehicle parked alongside a massive white gantry that typically houses a rocket on the launch pad, as well as a hydraulic crane with a railed platform likely used to service a rocket. Both pieces of equipment have been seen before in other satellite photos at the site just ahead of a launch.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, analyzed the photos and concluded, “This is fairly traditional pre-launch activity.” Iran has not officially acknowledged the findings, although state media announced on December 5 that the country’s civilian space program had four satellites ready for launch.

For the past decade, Iran has been beset by failure after failure on the launch pad. The Imam Khomeini Spaceport just cleaned up a rocket gone wrong on June 12, the fourth launch failure for its Simorgh program in a row, and a fire there in February 2019 killed three researchers. Later that year, Trump even tweeted out what appeared to be a classified U.S. spy satellite picture of a rocket explosion’s aftermath.

Despite the setbacks, Iran has successfully sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. More recently, the country’s Revolutionary Guard put a satellite in orbit in in April 2020, effectively revealing its own secret parallel space program. The head of the U.S. Space Command dismissed the satellite as “a tumbling webcam in space” that wouldn’t provide vital intelligence.

The ongoing activity at the spaceport could make way for the low-Earth-orbit imaging satellite Zafar 2, which Iranian state media described as “under the final phase of preparation.” Its predecessor, Zafar 1, launched in February 2020 but never made it to orbit because the rocket didn’t deploy it at the correct speed, according to Iranian officials at the time. If successfully launched into orbit, Zafar, which means “victory” in Farsi, would add a roughly 250 pound asset to Iran’s space portfolio.

All of this activity has put the U.S. on edge. The Biden administration alleges the satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Iran, on the other hand, claims its space program has no military application.

Regardless, Iran has shown more willingness to provoke the U.S. since then President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, which had granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limitations on its nuclear program. The country’s moderate president Hassan Rouhani still tried to salvage the deal with European partners for some years, but an election last June replaced him with Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Under Raisi, Iran’s Supreme Council of Space met for the first time in 11 years, according to a recent report by state media. He said at the time it “shows the determination of this government to develop the space industry.”

Jeffrey Lewis predicted the space program would continue to expand, saying, “They’re not constrained by worries about the Iran deal in the same way that Rouhani was.”

We’ll keep an eye out for any further activity at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, be it a flawless demonstration of Iran’s chops as a space power or another flaming disaster on the launch pad.

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