Iran has likely carried out a failed satellite-based missile launch in the past few days and now appears to be preparing for another attempt, the country’s latest attempt to advance its space program amid tensions with the West over its broken nuclear deal.
Satellite images, a US official and a rocket expert all confirmed the unsuccessful launch attempt earlier this month at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in the Iranian province of Semnan. The attempt comes after the Iranian space program has suffered a series of high profile losses and the revolutionary paramilitary guards are running a parallel program that put a satellite into orbit last year.
Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi denied on Wednesday that Tehran attempted to launch a satellite, but he gave no explanation for the activities discovered at the spaceport. The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Satellite photos from Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies show preparations at the spaceport on June 6th. These images appear to show fuel tanks next to a massive white gantry that houses a missile as scientists refuel them and prepare for launch. Before launch, workers are towing the gantry to expose the missile.
The number of fuel tanks, given their size, appears to have been sufficient to fill the first and second stages of an Iranian Simorgh missile, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The Simorgh is a satellite-based rocket launched from the same area of â€‹â€‹the spaceport, he said.
Satellite imagery taken on Thursday showed a decrease in activity at the site. Lewis said analysts believe Iran launched the missile sometime in the meantime.
â€œNothing exploded. There wasn’t a huge speck – like they’d spilled the fuel – and the vehicles just moved, â€said Lewis. â€œThe overall activity at the site was much lower. In our eyes it looked like a start. “
CNN, which first reported on the failed launch, quoted Pentagon spokesman Colonel Uriah Orland as saying, “The US space command is aware of the failure of the Iranian missile launch, which occurred early June 12th.” The Pentagon and US Space Command did not immediately respond to a request for further comments on Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear why Iran would have chosen June 12 for a launch, as Tehran usually plans such launches for national commemorations. However, it came in the run-up to Iran’s presidential election last week, for which the Islamic Republic had hoped to increase voter turnout.
On Sunday, a new satellite image from Planet Labs showed renewed activity at the site. The picture shows a mobile platform that was previously used to secure a Simorgh missile to the portal, an escort vehicle that was seen on earlier launches, and a new row of fuel tanks lined up on site. Lewis said the equipment suggests another attempt at launch is imminent.
Iran has launched several short-lived satellites into orbit over the past decade and launched a monkey into space in 2013. The program has seen problems lately. A failed start this month would be the fourth in a row for the Simorgh program. In a separate fire at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in February 2019, three researchers were also killed, the authorities said at the time.
A rocket explosion in August 2019 caught the attention of former President Trump, who later tweeted a seemingly secret surveillance picture of the launch’s failure. The successive failures raised suspicions of outside interference in the Iranian program, to which Trump himself hinted when he tweeted at the time that the US was “not involved in the catastrophic accident”. However, Lewis said that such errors are common, especially when trying to carefully put objects into orbit around the earth.
Meanwhile, in April 2020, the Revolutionary Guard unveiled its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The US space command chief later referred to the satellite as “a tumbling webcam in space” that would not provide vital information to Iran, but it did show Tehran’s ability to successfully put something into orbit.
The alleged failed start comes after the landslide election of Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s radical head of justice. The election had the lowest turnout in a presidential election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
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Raisi will succeed Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate man who led Tehran to its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the agreement in 2018 and sparked months of tensions in the wider Middle East that continue to this day. Diplomats in Vienna are now negotiating a way for Iran and the US to re-enter the deal in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.
The US has claimed that such satellite launches contradict a UN Security Council resolution and urged Iran not to engage in activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which has long claimed it was not aiming for nuclear weapons, previously claimed that its satellite launches and missile tests had no military component. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
However, the Simorgh is way too big and slow to be a good carrier for a nuclear weapon, Lewis said.
“It’s a butter knife,” he added. â€œCould you stab someone with a butter knife? Yes, but that’s not really the tool. “