How Iran’s satellite program faced setbacks under Rouhani

The project manager for Iran’s Fajr program discusses Iran’s satellite initiatives, which are entwined with their rocket program.

IRANIAN PRESIDENT Hassan Rouhani (right) and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Who wanted to pay the price of moral action to truly stop Iran? (photo credit: DANISH SIDDIQUI/ REUTERS)
IRANIAN PRESIDENT Hassan Rouhani (right) and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Who wanted to pay the price of moral action to truly stop Iran?

Iran launched its first domestic satellite, called Omid, in 2009. In an interesting interview with Iran’s Tasnim News, the project manager for Iran’s Fajr program, which began after the Omid launch, discusses Iran’s satellite initiatives.

The article is critical of Iran’s previous administration of Hassan Rouhani. It argues that Iran’s satellite program declined over the last seven years, from previous successes between 2009 and 2012. The interview in Tasnim was with Hossein Shahrabi Farahani. 

The article is important because Iran’s rocket and satellite programs are entwined. Iran wants to build better missiles and rockets and it has improved its satellite launch vehicles (SLV). In February 2020 Iran launched a communication satellite called Zafar 1. It didn’t reach the required speed for orbit. In April 2020 Iran launched the Noor military satellite into orbit.

Iran also tried to launch three “research cargos” into space in December 2021. Iran also suffered a setback in 2019 when there was an accident at its Semnan launch site. A Safir launch vehicle suffered some kind of explosion. Besides the Safir, Iran also has the Simorgh, Zuljanah and other SLVs. Iran has launched Simorgh rockets from its Imam Khomeini Space Center. 

Iran’s space program has implications for the region because Iran can use it to spy on countries in the region. Iran can also use its technology potentially for rockets that might be used to threaten Israel and other countries. Iran was the 9th country in the world to put a domestically made satellite into orbit. This means that, like its drone program, Iran is one of the leading countries in this technology.  

ranian soldiers stand guard on an anti-aircraft machine gun inside the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, 322km (200 miles) south of Iran's capital Tehran March 9, 2006.  (credit: REUTERS)ranian soldiers stand guard on an anti-aircraft machine gun inside the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, 322km (200 miles) south of Iran's capital Tehran March 9, 2006. (credit: REUTERS)

In the article, the former project manager of the Fajr satellite program discusses some of the successes and failures of Iran’s program. This is unique because it has criticism for how Iran could have better managed this industry. The Iranian space agency was starved for budgets during the Rouhani administration. Farahani says that it important to allow the private sector in Iran to play a larger role in Iran’s space race. “Today in different parts of the satellite, companies in Iran there are many Iranians who are producing satellite parts with good quality,” he says. “Since 2009, great events have taken place in the space field of Iran and the world; When we launched the Omid satellite, we actually managed to enter space with government actors and a local launcher, but at the same time, in comparison with Iran, other things were happening in the world, and that was that the private sector.” 

He points to the success of SpaceX, the American corporation founded by Elon Musk in 2002. 

“Take a look at SpaceX today, a milestone in 2009 when it entered space; In fact, a new arena has started to work in space, and that is the migration from the public sector to the private sector, which has happened in the world,” says Farahani. He also mentions Planet, the company also called  Planet Labs PBC, an American public Earth imaging company based in San Francisco. He notes that the private secotr has invested in smaller, inexpensive satellites. He points out that private satellite imagery has been published of sensitive sites in Iran, such as the Natanz nuclear facilities.  

“From a certain time onwards (maybe 10 years ago) the United States released the sale of images under 1 meter, which we did not have before; Images up to a resolution of 10 meters are free, which you can also download for free on the Internet, but from one place to another it costs money….Unfortunately, at present, Iran has no share of the market for the sale of space satellite information and data, and we are very far from the leading countries,” he says. 

He also points to the Iridium company that put into orbit a constellation of 66 satellites used for communications. Over time the price of satellites has also decreased from some $200 million, to less than a million, he says. “It was then that the issue of satellite systems proved to be cost-effective, meaning that a large set of low-orbit satellites could provide Internet services, and it was very likely to be economically viable, and certainly when it was operational in the field of telemetry, certainly in telecommunications. It can also be done.” He says today there are. more than 2,000 satellites in orbit. The number today is actually even more than that.  

The interview praises Elon Musk for his vision and also praises the method of having rockets that can return. Farahani also slams government monopolies on satellite programs for driving up costs. “The Iranian Space Agency has decided to highlight the role of the private sector in the field of space, but unfortunately this has not been done,” he says. “To start an economic business, you have to see where technology is changing and get in there, and if technology is established, the old giants will no longer allow new actors to work.” 

The article praises the US for its regulatory framework and also the issuing of low-cost licenses to start-ups that can put systems into orbit. “The US regulator has stated that we need to make it easy for small companies intending to operate in space systems to enter the field, and not just allow financially strong groups to enter the system.”

Farahani says that the Iranian Space Agency is responsible for providing licenses in Iran, alongside a radio regulatory authority. “Those who are financially weak and although technologically strong cannot get a license from the regulator, but the US regulator wants to support these actors as well, so that with the arrival of good startups in this field, leadership will be maintained in space,” he notes; contrasting the US system with the Iranian one. He points to the US example of the Swarm low earth orbit satellites, which promises low-cost satellites for communications.  

Farahani now runs a private company and says it has “announced our readiness to obtain a license, but these licenses must take into account our circumstances and those of small creatures; we are a start-up company and we do not have billion-dollar guarantees.” He goes on to note that “by the grace of God, our goal is to reach the system and that we want to shape the ecosystem of cheap private satellites in the country.”  

The previous Iranian government appears to have failed to keep Iran moving forward in space at the pace it could. Now Farahani has hopes for the new government. “We wrote letters to the President and conveyed our wishes, and the President's office wrote letters to the new Minister of Communications a day later, emphasizing the privatization of the space sector, but nothing has happened yet,” he says. “Our claim today is that we can make a good product at much lower prices than abroad,” he says.