Satellite images, experts suspect that the Iranian space launch is imminent

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This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. on Saturday, December 11, 2021, shows activities at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Semnan Province, Iran, with world powers grappling with world powers, according to an expert and satellite images.  (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. on Saturday, December 11, 2021, shows activities at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Semnan Province, Iran, with world powers grappling with world powers, according to an expert and satellite images. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

AP

According to an expert and satellite imagery, Iran appears to be preparing for a space launch while Vienna continues negotiations over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

The likely shooting down at Iran’s Imam Khomeini spaceport comes after Iranian state media presented a list of upcoming planned satellite launches for the Islamic Republic’s civil space program, which has been ravaged by a series of failed launches. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard operates its own parallel program that successfully launched a satellite into orbit last year.

The launch of a starting shot in the midst of the Vienna talks fits in with the tough stance of the Tehran negotiators, who have already described six previous rounds of diplomacy as a “draft” that annoyed Western nations. The new German Foreign Minister even warns that “we are running out of time”.

But all of this fits in with a renewed focus on space by hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who studies Tehran’s program. With former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leading the nuclear deal out of office, concerns about alienating talks with launches the US claims to support Tehran’s ballistic missile program have likely faded.

“You don’t walk on eggshells,” said Lewis. “I think Raisi’s people have a new balance in mind.”

The Iranian state media did not confirm the spaceport activities and the Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. military tracking space launches did not respond to requests for comment.

Satellite images captured by Planet Labs Inc. from The Associated Press on Saturday show activity at the spaceport in the desert plains of Iran’s rural Semnan Province, about 150 miles (150 miles) southeast of Tehran.

An escort vehicle stood next to a massive white portal that usually houses a missile on the launch pad. This support vehicle appeared on other satellite photos at the location shortly before a take-off. Also on display is a hydraulic crane with a platform with rails, which was also seen before previous launches and was likely used to maintain the rocket.

Other satellite imagery of the spaceport in recent days has shown an increase in the number of cars at the facility, another sign of increased activity that normally precedes a launch. A building believed to be the “box office” for a missile has also increased in size, Lewis said.

“This is a pretty traditional pre-launch activity,” he told the AP.

The activity comes after Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency published an article on December 5 stating that its space program had four satellites ready for launch. It described one, the Zafar 2 low-orbit imaging satellite, as “in the final stages of preparation.” Zafar, which means “victory” in Farsi, weighs around 113 kilograms.

However, the Zafar 1 failed to make it into orbit after launching at the spaceport in February 2020. A Simorgh or “Phoenix” missile was used in this launch, but Iranian officials said it could not launch the satellite into orbit at the correct speed. Iran had spent almost 2 million euros on building the satellite.

Iran’s civil space program has seen a number of setbacks and deadly explosions in recent years. A mysterious explosion even caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump in 2019, who tweeted an apparently secret US spy satellite image of the aftermath of the explosion with the caption, “The United States was not involved in the catastrophic accident.”

Meanwhile, in April 2020, the Guard revealed their 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 – even though it demonstrated Tehran’s ability to successfully enter orbit.

Iran has launched several short-lived satellites into orbit over the past decade, and launched a monkey into space in 2013. But under Raisi, Iran’s Supreme Space Council met for the first time in eleven years, according to a recent report on state television.

Raisi said at the November meeting that this “shows the determination of this government to develop the space industry.” A senior member of the Guard who directs its aerospace program, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, attended with Foreign Minister Hossein. Amirabdollahian attended the meeting.

The US claims that such satellite launches contradict a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran not to engage in activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Iran, which has long declared that it does not seek nuclear weapons, is maintaining its satellite launches and missile testing has no military component. Tehran also says it did not violate the UN resolution as it only “asked” Tehran not to conduct such tests.

The possible start is also due to the fact that tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program are increasing again. Since Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with the world powers in 2018, Iran has slowly given up all the limits that the agreement placed on its program.

Today, Tehran enriches uranium to a purity of 60% – a short technical step from a weapon grade of 90%. Its stocks of enriched uranium are also growing, and international inspectors are facing challenges in monitoring its progress.

Lewis said he expected the space program to accelerate given Raisi’s interest.

“You are not as constrained by concerns about the Iran deal as Rouhani,” he said.

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Associate press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.


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