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Iran failed to launch satellite earlier this month, is trying again — experts

Iranian space program has long been accused of being a front for intercontinental ballistic missile development; civilian analysts say they see evidence another attempt is imminent

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

This satellite image provided by Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows preparation at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran's Semnan province on  June 1, 2021 before what experts believe was the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket on June 12. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)
This satellite image provided by Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows preparation at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran's Semnan province on June 1, 2021 before what experts believe was the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket on June 12. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Iran conducted a satellite launch earlier this month, which failed, and appears to be preparing to carry out another, civilian analysts found and American defense officials confirmed to CNN on Tuesday.

The reasons for the failed launch of the Simorgh rocket were not immediately clear. Tehran has not commented on the matter.

Israeli and other international defense officials have long maintained that Iran’s ostensible space program is in fact cover for its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which rely on largely the same technology.

In the beginning of June, Dave Schmerler and Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies noticed the tell-tale signs of an impending launch in satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies of Iran’s spaceport in Semnan — specifically, large numbers of vehicles, fuel tanks and other implements.

“We never see this equipment except before space launches,” Lewis wrote in a series of tweets about the matter on Wednesday.

A week or so later, the activity at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport decreased significantly, indicating that the launch had already been conducted. However, unlike in cases of successful launches, Iran made no announcements about the matter and no new satellites were reported in orbit around the Earth.

“We were pretty sure the launch failed,” Lewis said.

The two researchers then reached out to CNN in order to get their hunch confirmed. On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland told the news network that there had indeed been a failed launch.

“US Space Command is aware of the Iranian rocket launch failure which occurred early June 12th,” Orland told CNN.

It was not immediately clear how or at what stage the launch failed. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for additional information from The Times of Israel.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows preparation at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province on June 6, 2021 before what experts believe was the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket. (2021 Maxar Technologies, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

This was at least the fourth time in a row that Iran has failed to put its Simorgh satellite launch vehicle into orbit, with the rocket either blowing up on the launchpad or at a later stage in the launch.

According to Lewis, fresh satellite photographs of the Imam Khomeini Spaceport from June 20 again show the vehicles and equipment that are typically only seen before a launch, indicating that another is in the works.

“A support vehicle and the mobile work platform are back at the gantry and there is another load of fuel (and possibly oxidizer) on site. The Iranians are going to try again!” he wrote.

This month’s failed launch and apparent impending one came as the United States and Iran negotiate a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Former US president Donald Trump abrogated the agreement in 2018, putting in place a crushing sanctions regime against Iran and Iranian officials. In return, a year later Iran too abandoned the deal, progressively enriching more and more uranium and to greater degrees of purity than was permitted under the deal and making advancements in other atomic-related fields that were proscribed by the agreement.

This satellite image provided by Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows preparation at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province on June 20, 2021 before what experts believe will be the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated his intention to return to the JCPOA and remove the sanctions put in place by his predecessor, provided Iran first come into compliance with the agreement.

In recent months, Iranian and Western diplomats have been negotiating such a reentry into the nuclear deal in Vienna, with all sides reporting progress but so far no resolution.

Last week, hardliner Ebraham Raisi was chosen as Iran’s next president. Raisi, who is infamous for ordering mass executions of prisoners in the 1980s, is expected to take a harsher stance on Iran’s nuclear program, though the White House and many defense analysts believe that the decision on how Tehran proceeds in terms of the JCPOA and its military expansionism is ultimately made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not the president.

Iran has also sought to increase the pressure on the US and the West by conducting tests of its satellite launch vehicles, which could also serve as nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Lewis, who is writing a book on Iran’s space program, has long maintained that while some satellite launch vehicles could be used as intercontinental ballistic missiles, he does not believe that this would be the case with the Simorgh, which by its design would not be well suited to the task, as compared to some of the models being tested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Last year, the IRGC successfully put a small spy satellite into orbit, making it one of the few militaries in the world with the ability to do so independently. However, defense officials have dismissed the satellite as not being particularly concerning in terms of its capabilities.

“It’s a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel,” the head of the US Space Command wrote in a tweet at the time of the launch.

Earlier this year, Iranian state TV aired the launch of the country’s newest satellite-carrying rocket — not the Simorgh — which it said was able to reach a height of 500 kilometers (310 miles).

The rocket, named Zuljanah for the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, did not launch a satellite into orbit. The satellite carrier is 25.5 meters (84 feet) long and weighs 52 tons. Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s space department, which oversaw the launch, said that the rocket is capable of carrying either a single 220-kilogram (485-pound) satellite or up to 10 smaller ones.

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