Iran Is Mastering the Final Frontier
Tehran’s military is advancing ever farther into outer space—and the threat is bigger than Washington is letting on.
In mid-January and early February, Iran attempted two satellite launches intended for environmental monitoring purposes. The Payam (Message) and Doosti (Friendship) ascended aboard Iranian-made satellite launch vehicles (SLVs). Both launches failed to place the satellites into orbit. The United States nevertheless protested the space launches—mostly because the SLVs used the same base technology as multistage intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
In an anticipatory tweet on Jan. 3, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned that “The launch will advance [Iran’s] missile program. US, France, UK & Germany have already stated this is in defiance of [United Nations Security Council Resolution] 2231. We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security.” The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has even reportedly revived a Bush-era secret program to sabotage Iran’s missile and space program by planting “faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains.”
Yet the national-security significance of Iran’s space program far surpasses its implications for ICBMs. Iran’s growing presence in outer space, especially when combined with its growing capabilities in cyberspace, strengthens all aspects of its hard power.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s space program evolved from its indigenous missile program, which began in the late 1980s with assistance mainly from North Korea, China, Libya, and the Soviet Union. In 2003, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president, the Iranian parliament approved the creation of the Supreme Space Council (SSC) and the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) as its executive arm, with both in turn linked to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.
The space program received a big boost under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hard-line presidency beginning in 2005, just as Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West intensified. In February 2009, during the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Iran successfully launched its first indigenous satellite, Omid (Hope), using the Safir (Ambassador) SLV, placing it among the dozen or so spacefaring nations with independent satellite launch capability. Iran has so far successfully employed Safir-class SLVs to place in orbit four satellites carrying various telecommunications, earth-imaging and environmental monitoring equipment. Eight other documented orbital launches have failed.
In 2010, Iran unveiled its two-stage Simorgh (Phoenix) SLV, which improves on the Safir by harnessing not one but four missile engines (all based on North Korea’s Nodong missile), in turn permitting a payload capacity of up to 550 pounds—five times more than what it had thus far placed in orbit. Since 2016, Iran has attempted several launches with the Simorgh, but none, including the Payam this January, has yet proven successful. In January 2013, however, Iran reportedly dispatched a monkey into space, bringing it closer to human spaceflight, which so far only Russia, the U.S., and China have achieved. In 2013, Iran also inaugurated a space monitoring center, a crucial first step toward improved awareness of natural and man-made objects, events, and activities occurring in space.
Iran’s successes have so far focused on low Earth orbit (LEO), the highest-traffic band of space, located up to 1,200 kilometers from Earth. This area is generally used for Earth observation, some limited communications systems and, most famously, as a perch for the International Space Station. Iran is now aiming to take a variety of satellites farther afield into the next two bands of space, known as medium Earth orbit (MEO) and geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO). Located at up to 12,500 miles and 22,000 miles from Earth, these are used for navigation systems such as GPS, as well as internet, television, and radio broadcast systems.
As with its nuclear program, Tehran has argued for the exclusively peaceful purposes of its space program. But Iran, a state persistently sensitive to threats against it, is likely at the very least to treat space as a potential security vulnerability. It will almost certainly try to degrade, deny, and deter attempts by others to weaponize space.
Tehran meanwhile is surely already assessing the offensive efforts of other countries. In June 2018, Trump instructed the Pentagon to establish a “space force” separate from the Air Force as the U.S. military’s sixth branch, in order to dominate space. Russia and China demurred in response, insisting on purely peaceful uses for space. But while no space wars have yet occurred, an arms race has been quietly building up between China and the United States, with Russia also quickly edging in. Back in 2007, China successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on one of its own retired weather satellites in orbit, the first since similar tests by the Cold War superpowers in the 1980s. A 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report warned that both China and Russia are investing in weapons capable of attacking U.S. satellites and space assets, which could transform space into a battlefield. The emerging security dilemma has accordingly prompted even other states to develop counterspace capabilities aimed essentially at mastering the new terrain.
Iran, for its part, has been slowly but steadily improving capabilities linked to intelligence, reconnaissance, and early-warning systems. It has reportedly already managed to use space technologies to spoof the GPS system of an American drone, blind a U.S. spy satellite using directed energy, and use advanced jamming techniques against western commercial satellites. More hypothetically, with improved tracking and positioning technology, further ballistic advances could offer Iran the potential to develop Earth-based direct-ascent or on-orbit ASAT missiles, which could also target the satellites and Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance platforms (known as C4ISR) that adversaries such as the United States increasingly use in integrated military operations.
Notwithstanding the 1967 U.N. ban on nuclear weapons in outer space which Iran has signed but not yet ratified, Iran could potentially combine its nuclear ambitions with its outer space ambitions. This could take the form of weaponry not unlike the Soviet Union’s Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which would have used suborbital flight to achieve a global strike range. Similarly, a nuclear weapon detonated by Iran from space could be used to generate an electromagnetic pulse to incapacitate electrical and electronic systems in orbit.
It’s still premature to talk of Iran employing or possessing advanced space capabilities like those of China and Russia. But even if Iran’s space doctrine firmly eschews offense, self-defense space operations involving means already at its disposal such as lasers, jammers, or hacking could still disrupt a sprawling range of services the international community is increasingly dependent upon, including navigation and communications. Moreover, instead of striking space assets, states could target the other two more accessible components of space systems—ground control and telemetry facilities, and the radars which ensure Earth-space communications links.
One recent assessment by a U.S. think tank persuasively challenged the premise that Iran is using its space program to mask ICBM development, thereby questioning the Trump administration’s characterization of the threat. But as competition among the world’s spacefaring nations gears up, space as the ultimate high ground of strategy will only grow in importance for Iran—especially given the relatively sparse instruments of deterrence otherwise at its disposal.
Kevjn Lim is a doctoral researcher at Tel Aviv University's School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs. He is also a Middle East and North Africa consultant for IHS Markit.