Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Iran appeared to be preparing for a space launch on Tuesday as satellite images showed a rocket on a launch pad in the rural desert, just as tensions remain high over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Images from Maxar Technologies showed a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of frequent recent failed attempts to launch a satellite into orbit.
A series of images showed a rocket on a carrier, preparing to be lifted and placed on a launch tower. An image later Tuesday afternoon showed the rocket apparently on the tower.
Iran did not acknowledge an upcoming launch at the spaceport and its mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, its state-run IRNA news agency said in May that Iran would likely have seven homemade satellites ready for launch by the end of the Persian calendar year in March 2023. A Defense Ministry official also said recently suggested that Iran may soon test its new solid-state powered rocket called Zuljanah.
It was unclear when the launch would take place, although the erection of a rocket usually means a launch is imminent. NASA fire satellites, which detect flashes of light from space, immediately saw no activity at the site on Tuesday evening.
Asked about the preparations, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the United States was urging Iran to de-escalate the situation.
“Iran has always chosen to escalate tensions. It is Iran that has always chosen to take provocative measures,” Price said.
A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, said the U.S. military “will continue to closely monitor Iran’s pursuit of viable space launch technology and how it might be linked to the progress of its global ballistic missile programme”.
“Iranian aggression, including the demonstrated threat posed by its various missile programs, continues to be a major concern for our forces in the region,” Lodewick said.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit, and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. However, the program has had recent problems. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The launch pad used during preparations on Tuesday remains marred by an explosion in August 2019 that even caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump. He then tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the failed launch. Satellite images from February suggested a failed Zuljanah launch earlier this year, although Iran did not acknowledge it.
Successive failures have raised suspicions of outside interference in Iran’s program, which Trump himself alluded to when he tweeted at the time that the United States “was not involved in the catastrophic accident”. However, no evidence has been provided to show foul play in any of the failures, and space launches remain difficult for even the world’s most successful programs.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards in April 2020 revealed their own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard launched another satellite in March at another site in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital of Tehran.
Judging by the launch pad used, Iran is likely preparing for the Zuljanah test launch, said John Krzyzaniak, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Earlier this week, Krzyzaniak suggested a launch was imminent based on activity on the site.
The name of the rocket, Zuljanah, comes from the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Iranian state television broadcast footage of a successful Zuljanah launch in February 2021.
Preparations for the launch also come as the Guard reportedly saw one of its soldiers “martyred” in Semnan province in unclear circumstances over the weekend. Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, however, later claimed the man worked for them.
The United States alleged that the Iranian satellite launches defied a UN Security Council resolution and called on Tehran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, released in March, says such a satellite launcher “shortens the time” for an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran because it uses “similar technologies.”
Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, has previously maintained that its satellite launches and rocket tests have no military component. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
However, Iran’s likely preparations for a launch come as tensions have escalated in recent days over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran now says it will remove 27 IAEA surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites as it now enriches uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.
Iran and the United States insist on their willingness to rejoin Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw the Islamic Republic severely limit its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal in 2018, sparking a series of attacks and clashes from 2019 that continue today under President Joe Biden’s administration.
Talks in Vienna on reviving the deal have been on “pause” since March.
Building a nuclear bomb would take Iran even longer if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past to carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a series of recent killings targeting Iranian officials.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twiter.com/jongambrellAP.