Russia said providing Iran advanced spy satellite to surveil military targets

Officials say satellite would be a major upgrade to Iranian capabilities, letting Tehran continuously photograph Israeli and US bases in Mideast and share data with terror groups

In this photo released on April 22, 2020, by Sepahnews, an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite is launched from an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran's Semnan province. (Sepahnews via AP)
In this photo released on April 22, 2020, by Sepahnews, an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite is launched from an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran's Semnan province. (Sepahnews via AP)

Russia is set to provide Iran with an advanced satellite that officials say can be used to track military targets across the Middle East and would significantly boost Tehran’s intelligence-gathering ability, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

The report, citing three current and former US and Middle Eastern officials, said Russia will supply Iran with a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera.

While technically a civilian satellite, it would give Iran the ability to continuously monitor sites ranging from Israeli army facilities to US military bases to Saudi oil refineries, the officials said.

Iran has stepped up its attempts at a satellite program in recent years. In April 2020 Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched their first satellite into space, dramatically revealing what experts described as a secret military space program.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division stands in front of an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite in an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran’s Semnan province, April 22, 2020. (Sepahnews via AP)

However, Pentagon officials derided the “Noor” satellite as little more than a “rotating webcam” and Israel’s Foreign Ministry described the launch as a “façade for Iran’s continuous development of advanced missile technology.”

But it appears Iran’s military is also actively pursuing advanced surveillance capabilities.

The Washington Post said that senior Revolutionary Guards officials have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement to purchase the satellite, while Russian experts were in Iran to help train ground crews that would operate the satellite from a newly built facility near the northern city of Karaj.

The Guard, which operates its own military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces, is a hardline force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The satellite would be supplied in the next few months and be launched by Russia, the report said, noting that Russia declined to comment.

A Middle Eastern official told the Post that the Kanopus-V would feature Russian hardware, including a camera with a resolution of 1.2 meters — a significant improvement over Iran’s current capabilities, though still far short of the quality achieved by US spy satellites or high-end commercial satellite imagery providers.

Iran would be able to “task” the new satellite to spy on locations of its choosing, and as often as it wished, the officials said.

“It’s not the best in the world, but it’s high-resolution and very good for military aims,” the Middle Eastern official told the Post. “This capability will allow Iran to maintain an accurate target bank, and to update that target bank within a few hours” every day.

In this photo provided by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service, a Russian Soyuz-2.1a rocket with 38 satellites from 18 countries on board, blasts off from a launchpad during rainfall at the Baikonur Cosmodrome space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Monday, March 22, 2021. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service photo via AP)

The official also said that Iran would be able share the images with its terror proxies across the region, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Huthis in Yemen, and militias operating in Iraq.

The report comes as the US is involved in indirect talks with Tehran to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, and ahead of a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In the past, the US and Israel have condemned Iran’s satellite efforts as defying a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously maintained its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. The Guard launching its own satellite calls that into question.

Russia has also defended Iran’s right to launch satellites.

Months after the launch of the Noor, Russia defended Iran’s right to launch a satellite, dismissing US claims that Tehran was defying the UN resolution endorsing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers by sending it into space.

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said that “the ongoing attempts of the United States side to deprive Iran of the right to reap the benefits of peaceful space technology under false pretexts are a cause for serious concern and profound regret.”

Iran has suffered several failed satellite launches in recent years. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February 2019 killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

A rocket explosion last August drew even the attention of then-US president Donald Trump, who tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The successive failures raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s program, something Trump himself hinted at by tweeting at the time that the US “was not involved in the catastrophic accident.”

This Jan. 26, 2020, satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows preparations at a rocket launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran’s Semnan province. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.

Experts told the Post that Iran previously managed to acquire high-resolution images by purchasing them from commercial satellite companies, however, their ability to obtain real-time data about potential military targets was limited.

“A domestic capability to take those pictures is something the military wants, because it’s valuable to them,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif told the Post. He added that acquiring Russian technology essentially would allow the Iranians a faster path to a capability they would have acquired on their own, given enough time.

“Is Iran’s military delighted? Yes, it is, and this is a real change,” Lewis said. “But it was going to happen sooner or later.”

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