Iran prepares for space launch during nuclear deal talks, satellite images and expert suggestions



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran appears to be preparing for a space launch as negotiations continue in Vienna over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers, according to an expert and satellite images.

The likely liftoff from Iranian spaceport Imam Khomeini comes as Iranian state media offered a list of upcoming satellite launches planned underway for the Islamic Republic’s civilian space program, which has been beset by a series of failed launches. Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guards run their own parallel program which has succeeded in putting a satellite in orbit last year.

Carrying out a launch in the middle of the Vienna talks fits the intransigent stance of negotiators in Tehran, who have already called the previous six rounds of diplomacy a “draft”, infuriating Western nations. The new German foreign minister went so far as to warn that “time is running out at this point”.

But all of this is part of a renewed focus on space by radical Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies who studies the program of Tehran. With former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani driving the nuclear deal out of office, concerns over alienation from talks with launches that the United States says are helping Tehran’s ballistic missile program have likely arisen. dimmed.

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

Iranian state media did not acknowledge the activity at the spaceport, and the Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The US military, which tracks space launches, did not respond to requests for comment.

Satellite images taken by Planet Labs Inc. on Saturday obtained by The Associated Press show activity at the spaceport in the desert plains of Iran’s rural province of Semnan, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of Tehran.

A support vehicle was parked next to a huge white gantry that usually houses a rocket on the launch pad. This support vehicle appeared in other satellite photos at the site just before a launch. A hydraulic crane with a rail platform is also visible, also seen before previous launches and probably used to maintain the rocket.

Other satellite images in recent days at the spaceport have shown an increase in the number of cars at the facility, another sign of increased activity that typically proceeds to a launch. A building that is also believed to be the “checkout” facility for a rocket has also seen an increase in activity, Lewis said.

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

The activity comes after Iran’s official news agency IRNA published an article on Dec. 5 saying its space program has four satellites ready for launch. He 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 (250 pounds).

The Zafar 1, however, failed to enter orbit after a February 2020 launch at the spaceport. This launch used a Simorgh, or “Phoenix” rocket, which carried the rocket into space, but failed to get it into orbit at the correct speed, according to Iranian officials at the time. Iran had spent just under € 2 million to build the satellite.

Iran’s civilian space program has seen a series of setbacks and deadly explosions in recent years. A mysterious explosion even caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump in 2019, who tweeted what appeared to be a classified US spy satellite image of the aftermath of the explosion with the caption: “The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident.”

Meanwhile, the Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The head of the US Space Command later called the satellite a ‘moving camera in space’ that would not provide Iran with vital intelligence – although it did show Tehran’s ability to orbit. with success.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched an ape into space. But under Raisi, Iran’s Supreme Space Council met for the first time in 11 years, according to a recent state television report.

Raisi said at the November meeting that this “shows the determination of this government to develop the space industry.” Amirabdollahian.

The United States alleges that such satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Iran, which has long said it is not looking for nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests lack a military component. Tehran also says it has not violated the UN resolution because it has only “called on” Tehran not to carry out such tests.

But the possible launch also comes as tensions rise again over Iran’s nuclear program. Since Trump unilaterally pulled America out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018, Iran has slowly let go of any limits the deal placed on its program.

Today, Tehran enriches uranium up to 60% purity – a short technical step compared to military grade levels of 90%. Its stockpile of enriched uranium also continues to grow, and international inspectors face challenges in monitoring its progress.

Lewis said he expects the space program to ramp up given Raisi’s interest.

“They are not limited by concerns about the deal with Iran in the same way Rouhani was,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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