Iran: Photos suggest a US-criticised satellite launch looms

DUBAI (AP) — Iranian officials and satellite images suggest the Islamic Republic is preparing to launch a satellite into space after three major failures last year, the latest for a programme which the United States (US) claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile programme.

Satellite images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc that have been annotated by experts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies show work at a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province.

The photos also show more cars and activity at a facility at the spaceport, some 230 kilometres southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran. Such activity in the past has signalled a launch looms.

The increased activity corresponds to an uptick in reports in state and semi-official media in Iran about launches coming amid celebrations marking the days before the nation celebrates the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space programme and its nuclear efforts during this time.

Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, a possible contender in the country’s 2021 Presidential election, also increasingly has been tweeting about the country’s satellite programme.

Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Iran’s Semnan province. PHOTO: AP

He responded to a tweet late Monday night by the US-based broadcaster NPR highlighting Planet Lab’s satellite photos acknowledging Iran planned to launch a satellite system called the Zafar.

An earlier report by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Jahromi as saying Tehran planned to launch six satellites into orbit this year, including the Zafar 1 and 2. IRNA described the Zafar 1 and 2 as communication satellites aimed at “broadcasting a single message to all users, establishing one-way voice communication between two users and sending a message to 256 direct users”.

The apparent preparations for a rocket launch came after two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites last year, as well as a launch pad rocket explosion in August 2019. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

The satellite failure in August 2019 drew even the attention of US President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The three failures in a row raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s programme, something Trump touched on in his tweet.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote, identifying the rocket used. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”