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Iran prepping for space launch, new satellite images show

Imam Khomeini Space Center (Tasnim News/WikiCommons)
December 13, 2021

An analysis of satellite imagery last week shows Iran may be gearing up for a space launch.

Satellite images taken on Saturday by Planet Labs Inc. and shared with the Associated Press show new activity at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Spaceport. The signs of an upcoming space launch come two weeks after Iran returned to Vienna, Austria, for the latest round of talks about restarting the 2015 nuclear deal.

The satellite images showed a support vehicle parked alongside a massive white gantry that typically houses a rocket on the launchpad at the spaceport, located in Iran’s rural Semnan province, about 150 miles southeast of the capital city of Tehran. That support vehicle has been spotted at the spaceport in the past, right before a previous space launch.

The satellite images also showed a hydraulic crane with a railed platform, which had been used in the previous space launch. An increased number of cars at the spaceport in recent days has also suggested increased activity at the site.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Iran’s space program, told the Associated Press that the recent activity at the spaceport demonstrates a renewed focus on space by Iran’s recently-elected President Ebrahim Raisi.

“They’re not walking on eggshells,” Lewis told the Associated Press. “I think Raisi’s people have a new balance in mind.”

President Joe Biden’s administration had initiated efforts with the previous Iranian administration to restart the 2015 nuclear deal. Those early talks stalled before Raisi took office and had been on hold for months after the new Iranian administration took over.

In October, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Iran of not negotiating in good faith during the prior nuclear talks and “using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways.”

Thus far, Iran has launched a few short-lived satellites into space and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The country’s space program has been hindered by setbacks in more recent years, including mysterious explosions.

Under Raisi’s new leadership, Iran’s Supreme Council of Space met for the first time in 11 years, according to a November report by Iranian state-run television. Raisi said the meeting “shows the determination of this government to develop the space industry.”

The U.S. has previously accused Iran of using its space program to advance its offensive missile program. The U.S. has said in the past that Iran’s space program violates a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to forsake activity related to developing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied its satellite launches and rocket tests are for military purposes.