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Iran preparing for US-criticized satellite launch

The Imam Khomeini Space Center. (Tasnim News Agency/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Satellite images suggest Iran is preparing to launch a satellite into space after three failed rocket launches last year, reports say, as part of a program viewed by the United States as a cover for ballistic missile development.

“Yes, a site is being prepared for placing the Zafar satellite into orbit,” Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi tweeted late on January 27, responding to a U.S. media report saying Iran was preparing for a launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Semnan Province.

The minister said Tehran planned to launch five other satellites into orbit this year.

The apparent preparations for a rocket launch follow two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites in January and February last year, and a launchpad rocket explosion in August.

Since 2009, Iran has sent several satellites into orbit. The United States has accused Tehran of using the technology as part of an effort to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied the accusation.

Satellite photos taken on January 26 by the San Francisco-based commercial company Planet Labs Inc. and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey show work at a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center.

The images also show more cars and activity at a facility at the space center, located about 230 kilometers southeast of Tehran.

“It looks pretty clearly to us like Iran is going to try and put a satellite into space,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute who tracks Iran’s space program.

The increased activity at the Imam spaceport come as the country prepares to mark the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The U.S. pullout from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers last year and its reimposition of sanctions against the country has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The United States has reimposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy, while Iran has gradually reduced its commitments under the deal.

Tensions culminated earlier this month after top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, prompting Iran to retaliate with a missile attack against two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.