Iran Puts First Spy Satellite in Orbit. Here's Why Israel Should Worry

Last week, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that they put a satellite into orbit. But it is not just the successful launch that's troubling, it's how they did it

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran, April 22, 2020.
A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran, April 22, 2020. Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

After days of deliberations and evaluations, Israeli and western experts concluded that Iran’s most recent satellite launch, which took place last week, was successful. Iran managed to put four satellites into orbit in the past, but they were short-lived. It took 13 attempts, four of which only entered orbit for a short time, and nine of which failed completely, but this time it seems that the new satellite will last much longer – likely years – before disintegrating. Iran’s military spy satellite is now orbiting the earth at an approximate altitude of 450 kilometers.

“It is indeed an important accomplishment for the Iranian space program in general and its military in particular,” an Israeli security source, who asked not to be named, told Haaretz. “The most significant result is its symbolism, the fact that the launch didn’t fail.”

But there is a caveat. Most experts emphasize that still Iran has a long way to go before it could upgrade its long-range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads. Israeli military officials refused to comment on the launch, and only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned it, describing it as a threat to Israeli and international security.

The launch inaugurated the new Shahrood site in Semnan Province’s Markazi Desert, 400 kilometers east of Tehran. The Iranian satellite was launched by a three-stage missile, a more advanced version of the Safir first-generation rocket, which placed Iran’s first civilian satellite into orbit. The first stage uses a liquid propellant similar to the standard Iranian long-range Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of 1200-2000 kilometers, making it capable of reaching any point in Israel.

But it is the second stage that highlights the Islamic Republic’s technological progress – and military ambitions. It uses a solid propellant, the process of making which is more advanced than a liquid propellant. Its advantage lies in the fueling process. Like a car’s gas tank, it can take time to fill a rocket with liquid propellant. Within that time, enemy intelligence agencies could take notice. Solid propellant allows for quicker, more covert fueling.

There is also the notable fact that because the launcher was a mobile Shahab-3 adapted for a longer rocket, there was no launch umbilical tower – the tower of scaffolding frequently used to service a spacecraft on the launchpad – setting it apart from Iran's past “civilian” launches.

“This accentuates the military aspect of the system” says Dr. Uzi Rubin. Rubin is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS), and is considered one of the most distinguished missile analysts in the Middle East. Between 1991 and 1999, he served as head of Israel's Missile Defense Organization, and in that capacity oversaw the development of Israel's Arrow anti-missile defense system.

“The space launcher and the satellite are assembled and fueled inside an underground shelter in a horizontal position,” he explains. “Once assembled and fueled, it can emerge and drive to any roughly prepared patch of ground, be erected, launch and quickly retreat to the shelter.”

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were the ones to announce the launch, further removing the civilian mask from Iran’s initiative. “Iran has only one missile and space program, and it is military in nature,” says the Israeli security source.

The fact that the IRGC is running missile and space programs of its own, and the very existence of the Shahrood spaceport, have been known for years; this is the first time they are being conceding to by Iran. It’s further, and crucial, evidence that the military and economic powerhouse that is the IRGC – at this point a “state within a state” – is expanding its influence over the country.

“I tend to believe that this launch was a development test to examine new military satellite launch procedures, with more to follow” Rubin says.

The timing of the launch coincides with the coronavirus crisis, which has hit Iran particularly hard, with an official death toll of nearly 6,000, whose real figure is likely three times higher. But it takes years to prepare for a launch of this sort, and one can assume that once the launcher and satellite were ready – both of them were brand new – the IRGC went ahead and carried out the launch.

Although the timing is likely a coincidence, Rubin says that it still sends a powerful message: “The very act of launching a military satellite in the midst of the coronavirus crisis is a statement of self-confidence and perseverance by the Ayatollahs.” It is also an evidence of the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s determination to take risks despite ongoing tension between the country and the United States, and the painful sanctions put in place by the latter, which are crippling the Iranian economy.

At the same time, the new space launcher seems to have the same capabilities as the Safir: a small orbiting satellite with a payload of up to 50 kg (110 lbs) to low Earth orbit. “It’s military use is limited,” Rubin explains, adding that its altitude is too low to be used for communication. “It can be us only for reconnaissance, but with limited performance.”

The combination of the low altitude and the small payload – other countries’ satellites can hold tons – bars Iran’s satellite from being equipped with sophisticated cameras. Its smaller cameras can only send low-resolution imagery, similar to that of Google Earth, to the ground station. The Iranian payload is reminiscent of the first Israeli Ofek series satellite, which was launched over 30 years ago.

But by joining the exclusive list of about a dozen countries to have carried out orbital launches, Iran has demonstrated that it is quickly closing its technological gaps. If we soon see an Iranian system of operational military space assets, Rubin says, “I wouldn’t be surprised.” This worries Israel; the launch sends a clear message that despite U.S. objections, Iran is making headway in its plans to upgrade its long-range missiles, making them capable of delivering nuclear warheads if and when it decides to develop them.

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