According to a news report citing a U.S. Strategic Command initial assessment, Iran’s attempt to place its first operational satellite into orbit on July 27, 2017, using a Simorgh space launch vehicle (SLV) experienced catastrophic failure shortly after liftoff. The case marks the first Iranian acknowledgment of launching the heavy SLV, operating from its new permanent launch site, known as the Imam Khomeini National Space Center (IKNSC), located 220 kilometers southeast of Tehran in Semnan province.
Yet this was not, in fact, Iran’s first actual attempt to launch a Simorgh -- a rocket unveiled in 2010 and named for a mythical bird. That first effort took place in April 2016, also out of IKNSC, but was kept a secret and described by U.S. intelligence sources as “partly successful” although not intended for satellite orbital insertion. Russian sources indicated differently, claiming it to be a successful suborbital test of the new rocket. The evidence here is instructive, showing that on March 15, 2016, Manouchehr Manteghi, who heads Iran’s National Space Center -- part of a confusing web of space agencies -- had laid out a plan whereby the first attempt to place an operational satellite into orbit using a Simorgh, scheduled for February 2017, would be preceded by two test launches without payloads, in spring and autumn 2016. Taking the Iranian official’s statement at face value, one would expect the first attempted launch of an already-delayed operational Simorgh within months.
Iranian officials, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence, declared the launch a success, thereby evidently laying the groundwork for future Simorgh launches with satellites as heavy as 250 kilograms into a longer-lasting 500-kilometer low earth orbit. Bearing this weight would mark a fivefold increase from the previous-generation Iranian Safir SLV, for which four successful -- and several unsuccessful -- launches are on record. According to Manteghi, though, the current Simorgh generation can handle only a 100-kilogram payload at that orbit.
The Simorgh, more technically, is a two-stage, twenty-six-meter-long, 145-ton-thrust rocket, with an actual weight of 85 tons. Its configuration resembles that of the North Korean Unha SLV, which has assembled a record of three failed and two successful launches between 2006 and today, the last of which reportedly occurred on February 7, 2016. The Simorgh’s first stage has four Shahab-3 liquid-fuel engines, compared to Safir’s one such engine. Indeed Iran’s liquid-fuel engine technology still relies heavily on old Russian Scud/North Korean Nodong technology.
The IKNSC, Iran’s first permanent SLV site, was completed in 2013, following a hasty period of construction. It was reportedly designed and built with foreign -- possibly North Korean -- help and is managed by the Sairan space group, a subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Initially, Chabahar, located on the coast of the Oman Gulf, was identified as the most suitable location, given its proximity to the equator, but the Semnan military region was eventually chosen for “logistical” reasons. Thus, the 1,300-kilometer distance between IKNSC and the nearest Iranian coastal waters reduces the possibility that foreign navies could recover fallen rocket parts, but it likewise increases the risk of debris landing on civilian areas.
Potential Military Dimensions
An SLV incorporates many common technologies with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and a Simorgh-type ballistic missile is estimated by rocket engineers to have a 7,500-kilometer range with a 700-kilogram warhead. This range falls short of the continental United States but covers all Europe and Asia. Thanks to its Kavoshgar rockets, Iran also has experience with reentry vehicles.
A rule of thumb in rocket science holds that, while solid-fuel motors provide higher thrust at a lower cost, liquid-fuel engines are more efficient and can offer more control along the entire chosen trajectory. The advantages of solid-propellant technology -- alongside recent North Korean successes in the field and the prospect of greater Tehran-Pyongyang cooperation -- elevate it as Tehran’s preference. Still, given Iran’s experience working on the liquid-fuel Simorgh, one can never entirely dismiss the possibility that Tehran would pursue the liquid-fuel path if it chooses to build an ICBM.
Iran announced in June 2022 that it launched a solid-fueled rocket into space. This is viewed as a potentially dangerous development that could help Iran accelerate the development of an ICBM. The United States criticized the move as “unhelpful and destabilizing.”
For the time being, Iran appears to be focused on using the Simorgh and possibly the Safir to launch one or two satellites into orbit by March 2018, with two or three further launches expected during the following year. The first satellite scheduled for launch atop the Simorgh is called the Toloe-1 (“dawn”), an experimental remote-sensing and communication satellite weighing 100 kilograms -- Iran’s heaviest to date -- and equipped with a 25-meter resolution camera. In ultimately seeking to produce an operational geosynchronous (36,000 kilometer) telecommunications satellite for both civilian and military applications, the Iranian Defense Ministry and Iranian universities have been readying a number of experimental models for launch. But this ambitious goal will require more powerful SLVs -- e.g., the reported Qaem -- with reliable upper stages to carry a satellite to its final higher orbit.
In 2016, Iran unveiled its first orbital upper-stage Saman-1, said to have been designed for placing a piggybacking 100-kilogram satellite into a 400-by-700-kilometer low-elliptical orbit. Success here and in future geosynchronous orbital insertions will indicate improvements in Iran’s orbital maneuvering and propulsion, precise positioning, trajectory computation, and subsystem reliability. All these competencies will be useful if the Islamic Republic chooses to develop ICBM reentry vehicles.
For years, Iran has appeared determined to develop or acquire technologies required for geosynchronous satellite operations. In February 2017, for example, Iran unveiled the 50-kilogram Nahid-1 test-bed satellite to experiment with Ku-band communication and folding solar panels; set for later is the Nahid-2, at twice the weight. Launch schedules are not yet known for either satellite. More recently, Iranian officials have indicated greater interest in microsatellites at lower orbits, possibly to cut cost and lead times.
Although the most Simorgh launch was not said to carry any satellite into orbit, the crucial question is what this capability -- if fully operationalized -- could mean in a wider context. The future appearance of more powerful and reliable boosters, an objective hinted at in 2016 by Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, will stir suspicions that Iran plans to divert related technologies for purely military programs and even an eventual ICBM capability.
On August 29, 2019, Iran attempted to launch a satellite but there was an explosion on the launch pad at the Iranian space center. President Trump subsequently denied the United States had anything to do with the incident but did put a photograph on his twitter page showing the remains of the rocket. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened” he tweeted (New York Times, August 30, 2019).
In February 2020, Amid celebrations of the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran failed for the third straight time to put a satellite into orbit (New York Times, February 9, 2020). In April, however, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it had put a military satellite into orbit for the first time. The announcement raised concerns that the technology used to launch the satellite could be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (New York Times, April 22, 2020).
In 2021, it was reported that Russia has agreed “to deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops” (Washington Post, June 10, 2021).
At the end of 2021, Iran announced it launched a satellite in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. “These activities are all the more regrettable as they come at a time when we are making progress in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna,” the French foreign ministry said. “We call on Iran not to launch further ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, including space launchers” (Reuters, December 31, 2021).
Iran later admitted the rocket failed to put its three payloads into orbit after the rocket was unable to reach the required speed (Reuters, December 31, 2021).
In March 2022, Iran again announced that it launched a military satellite into orbit. The Noor-2 is the second in a series of small satellites operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), “The satellite’s small size is in contrast to the larger and much more powerful reconnaissance satellites operated by other countries such as the United States,” according to William Gordon (NASA Spaceflight.com, March 8, 2022). Nevertheless, the concern is that this launch is part of the development of long-range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.
In August 2022, Russia launched a Russian-built Iranian surveillance satellite that will improve Iran’s intelligence gathering. Tal Inbar, a senior research fellow at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said, “Israel has long had such an observation capability, but as far as Iran is concerned, this is a real breakthrough — for the first time an Iranian owns and operates a satellite with a high imaging resolution, much better than what they had until now.” He added, “From now on, Iran will be able to collect much more accurate intelligence information for military operations of their forces as well as for the organizations they support.”
Manned Space Stations Tabled
During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13), the Iranian Space Agency considered launching a human into orbit in a specially designed capsule -- but the estimated initial $8.5 billion cost, including astronaut training in Russia, proved prohibitive. In addition, frequent organizational reshuffles reportedly spurred confusion and frustration among the lower cadres, reportedly leading to brain drain.
Subsequently, however, Iranian Space Agency officials disclosed an unofficial halt to their manned space project, citing a lack of funding -- likely alongside organizational, and technical explanations -- and their decision to instead focus on the SLV projects. Such a pause makes sense given the daunting task of placing a manned spacecraft into low earth orbit, not to mention a hefty $15-20 billion budget.
Whatever the vacillations between manned spaceflight and SLV emphasis, all such major aspects of Iran’s space program are authorized and guided over the long term by a Supreme Space Council, which reports to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, such initiatives cannot simply be “halted” or “stalled” by mere government officials, despite claims to the contrary by the hardline media, unless such officials want to risk incurring Khamenei’s displeasure. The latest official comments, published July 28, suggest Khamenei has ordered a blocking of President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to decentralize the Iranian Space Agency, which during Ahmadinejad’s time was under direct presidential control.
Further regressions toward the Ahmadinejad era could occur with any continued success of the Simorgh, or further availability of funds. In particular, on January 8, 2013, Ahmadinejad’s government published an official strategic “roadmap to 2025,” reportedly 40,000 pages in length. Only 14 pages have been made public, but these envisage the design and launch of SLVs and satellites, including military-operated imaging satellites. The same document also called for an effective missile deterrence.
Depending on funding and launch capability, satellites even larger than the 250-kilogram examples (around the maximum weight a prospective Simorgh-2 could carry) might emerge in the longer term. Perhaps the most striking development on this front, however, would be the direct entry into -- or takeover of -- Iranian satellite design and launch programs by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an idea recently alluded to by an IRGC commander. This would mark a full reversal of Iran’s at least superficially civilian space program.
Further launches can be expected in the future, likely renewing concerns over the nature of Iran’s missile and SLV programs. The scenario is especially worrisome when considering assessments that a ballistic-missile derivative of the Simorgh could potentially achieve intercontinental range. Iran insists its inherently military-run space program is for peaceful purposes only and that its ballistic missiles are for conventional deterrence at a range no greater than 2,000 kilometers. Such rhetoric and Iran’s technical limitations notwithstanding, the mere possibility of diverted know-how from an SLV to an ICBM program will unsettle many Western capitals. Previous close cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang will provide no further solace.
Sources: Farzin Nadimi,
Iran's Space Program Emerges from Dormancy, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, (August 1, 2017).
Nasser Karimi and Isabel Debre,
Iran launches rocket into space as nuclear talks to resume, Washington Post, (June 26, 2022).
Neil MacFarquhar, Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi, “Russia Launches Iranian Satellite, a Sign of Closer Cooperation,” New York Times, (August 9, 2022).