Iran conducts 2nd test of satellite launcher as nuclear talks said set to resume

Zuljanah rocket weighs 52 tons and can reach an orbit of 500 kilometers above the surface; US warns it could be used to launch nuclear warheads

An image taken from a video showing the second launch of Iran's satellite carrier Zuljanah on June 26, 2022. (Twitter/Screenshot)
An image taken from a video showing the second launch of Iran's satellite carrier Zuljanah on June 26, 2022. (Twitter/Screenshot)

Iran tested out its Zuljanah satellite launcher on Sunday, the second of three tests scheduled for the long-range ballistic launcher, which the US fears could be used to launch nuclear warheads.

The test, reported by Iranian state TV, comes a day after European top officials said talks on reviving the nuclear deal with Tehran would resume within days.

The rocket’s name, Zuljanah, comes from the name of the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It weighs 52 tons, is 25.5 meters in length, and can carry loads of up to 220 kilograms at an orbit of 500 kilometers above the surface, according to a report by Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency.

“The third development phase of the Zuljanah satellite launcher will be based on a combination of information gained during today’s launch,” a defense ministry spokesperson was cited by Reuters as saying Sunday.

Iran first acknowledged the planned tests for the Zuljanah satellite launcher on June 15, after satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies showed preparations at a launch pad at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of frequent recent failed attempts to put a satellite into orbit.

One set of images showed a rocket on a transporter, preparing to be lifted and put on a launch tower. A later image showed the rocket apparently on the tower.

A spokesperson of Iran’s Defense Ministry responded to the published images by saying the tests would be conducted for “research” purposes, according to Fars News Agency.

But the US has rejected such claims, accusing Tehran of refueling tensions in the area.

The White House said it was aware of Sunday’s test and criticized the move as “unhelpful and destabilizing.” It said it was committed to using sanctions and other measures to prevent further advances in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Asked about the preparations earlier this month, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the US urges Iran to de-escalate the situation.

“Iran has consistently chosen to escalate tensions. It is Iran that has consistently chosen to take provocative actions,” Price said.

A Pentagon spokesman, US Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, said the American military “will continue to closely monitor Iran’s pursuit of viable space launch technology and how it may relate to advancements in its overall ballistic missile program.”

“Iranian aggression, to include the demonstrated threat posed by its various missile programs, continues to be a top concern for our forces in the region,” Lodewick said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

Though it is unknown when Iran conducted the first launch of Zuljanah, Iranian state TV aired footage of a successful Zuljanah launch in February 2021.

It was unclear according to the report if Sunday’s test of the Zuljanah satellite was successful and whether it would affect the rekindled negotiations in Vienna.

On Saturday, European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that have stalemated for months. Following his visit, he said talks over the nuclear deal would resume in an unnamed Persian Gulf country in the coming days.

Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component.

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy speaks during a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Iran’s capital Tehran on June 25, 2022. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. 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.

Earlier in June, the Iranian Space Agency said it was working to prepare seven more satellites for launch into the orbit, according to Fars News Agency.

Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard launched another satellite this March at another site in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital of Tehran.

In this satellite photo from Maxar Technologies, trucks and other equipment surround a scorched launch pad at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Spaceport in rural Semnan province on Feb. 27, 2022. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)

The United States has alleged that Iran’s satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution and has called on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The US intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, published in March, claims such a satellite launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran as it uses “similar technologies.”

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