Iran's satellite program is a growing threat - analysis

Iran's growing confidence in space can be seen in the report that the IRGC is planning on launching not just one, but multiple satellites into space within the next year.

 A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran April 22, 2020.  (photo credit: WANA/SEPAH NEWS VIA REUTERS)
A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran April 22, 2020.
(photo credit: WANA/SEPAH NEWS VIA REUTERS)

Iran intends to put another satellite into space, with the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aiming to take a role in the project, Iranian media have reported.

The reports show that the IRGC is seeking to take more of a role and command of the space program, as it has military elements to it. According to reports, Iran doesn’t just plan to launch one satellite, but potentially plans on launching several in the next year alone.

Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force Amir Ali Hajizadeh announced these plans on Sunday, praising Iran’s drone and missile capabilities, showing that the various Iranian programs are interlinked.  

Iran's growing confidence in space

The reports appear to illustrate Iran’s growing confidence in space, and the ability to launch satellites is a point of pride for Iran. It is a symbolic event, just as it is an event with possible military overtones that threatens the region.

 Iranian satellite carrier rocket ''Simorgh'' is seen in an unknown location in Iran, in this picture obtained on December 30, 2021.  (credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE OF IRAN/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Iranian satellite carrier rocket ''Simorgh'' is seen in an unknown location in Iran, in this picture obtained on December 30, 2021. (credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE OF IRAN/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The satellites themselves can be used for reconnaissance, and Iran’s launchers may have wider applications. The use of different types of Satellite Launch Vehicles is important. Iran developed the Zuljanah SLV in recent years and has also used the Safir-2 SLV during a test in 2016. In June of this year, Iran said it was preparing to use the Zuljanah solid-fuel satellite launch rocket. They also claimed to fire three “research” cargoes into space last December.  

It's important to recall that recent tests have often failed. The SLV that was tested in June apparently went through several failed tests even though Iran says the Suljanah can put a satellite weighing some 220kg into orbit. The IRGC launched two satellites into low-earth orbit (LEO) in the last several years: the Noor in April 2020 and the Noor 2 in March 2022.

Why are Iran's satellites different from all the others?

LEO satellites orbit the earth around a dozen times a day or more. This is in contrast to geostationary satellites that orbit at a range of some 35,800 km. over the equator and travel at the same speed as the Earth – 24 hours per orbit – so that they are relatively stationary. There are also satellites orbiting at altitudes between the LEO and geostationary satellites. There are thousands of satellites in orbit today, with almost 3,000 belonging to the US.  According to Space.com in 2020, there were 114 launches sending 1,000 new satellites to space. Thus, while Iran’s program is a point of pride for the regime, it is not really very significant. 

However, the fact that the IRGC uses the program as a cover for developing larger missiles, better fuel and rockets, and other technology, is likely the major threat of the program.  

Reports say that Hajizadeh, the key figure behind the country's missiles, has said that Iran will put new satellites into orbit with its Qaem satellite carrier. That he made the remarks public shows Iran’s confidence, but in doing so he also potentially sets the IRGC up for failure if they can’t get the satellites into orbit or if accidents occur.

Back in 2019, a launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center led to an explosion. This occurred during the final launch preparations for the Safir SLV. 

Iran’s Tasnim media noted that Hajizadeh made the comments about the space race during an event honoring a drone named after the Gaza war.

Hajizadeh “stated that the Gaza drone is one of thousands of projects of the IRGC Aerospace Force,” indicating that the satellite comments come in the context of threatening the US and Israel.

Iran says it has weakened US superiority in drones. "They say that airspace and drone and missile power is a more important issue than nuclear power, and they also know that the same is the case in the defense sector,” Hajizadeh continued in his speech, before slamming Israel, comparing it to a disease.

“Surface-to-air defense missiles based on drones are an Iranian invention, and we have many such cases, and I must emphasize that both in the accuracy of missiles, in the field of defense, and in the field of radar and drones, the success is due to the strict implementation of the Supreme Leader's measures.”

Amir Ali Hajizadeh

The IRGC commander then praised Iran’s inventions, saying that “surface-to-air defense missiles based on drones are an Iranian invention, and we have many such cases, and I must emphasize that both in the accuracy of missiles, in the field of defense, and in the field of radar and drones, the success is due to the strict implementation of the Supreme Leader's measures.” 

Iran believes that its space program is part of its attempt to obtain “sovereignty,” a kind of independence from the other great powers. Tehran points to its success launching the Omid satellite in 2009 and the Rasad satellite in 2011. Iran’s president is reportedly interested in developing the space industry and investing in new SLVs as well as the existing Zuljanah SLV. Iranian officials say they have several satellites on hand for launching into orbit – and that this will make the country an exporter of space services.