Iran Launches Three Satellites Amid Western Criticism and Rising Tensions

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On January 28, 2024, Iran announced the successful launch of three satellites into space, utilizing a rocket that had experienced multiple failures in the past.

This development adds fuel to an already contentious program, which the West contends contributes to the enhancement of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities.

The timing of the satellite launch is particularly noteworthy as the wider Middle East grapples with heightened tensions, primarily fueled by Israel’s ongoing military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fear of a potential regional conflict looms large as these tensions escalate.

Despite not directly intervening in the Israel-Hamas conflict, Iran faces internal pressure to respond. A recent Islamic State suicide bombing has intensified calls for action, while proxy groups such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, linked to the conflict, continue their attacks. Concurrently, Western nations remain deeply concerned about Iran’s rapidly expanding nuclear program.

The satellite launch adds another layer of tension to the geopolitical landscape of the region, with the West expressing criticism over the perceived dual-use nature of Iran’s space program. While Iran insists that its space endeavors are for peaceful purposes, Western powers argue that these activities contribute to advancements in ballistic missile technology, posing a potential threat to regional stability.

Meanwhile, footage released by Iranian state television showed a nighttime launch for the Simorgh rocket. An analysis of the footage showed that it took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province.

“The roar of the Simorgh (rocket) resonated in our country’s sky and infinite space,” said Abbas Rasooli, a state TV reporter, in the footage.

State TV named the launched satellites Mahda, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1. It described the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and the Hatef were nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication respectively. Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Isa Zarepour said the Mahda had already sent signals back to Earth.

Five Failed Launches In a Row
There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, a satellite-carrying rocket. The Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket failures have been part of a series of setbacks in recent years for Iran’s civilian space program, including fatal fires and a launchpad rocket explosion that drew the attention of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The footage showed the rocket launched Sunday bore the slogan “We Can” in Farsi, likely referring to the previous failures.

The Simorgh is a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket the Iranians described as being designed to place satellites into a low Earth orbit.

However, the U.S. intelligence community’s 2023 worldwide threat assessment said the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology. That report specifically cites the Simorgh as a possible dual-use rocket.

The United States has previously said Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to undertake no activity involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program expired last October.

Under Iran’s relatively moderate former President Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic slowed its space program for fear of raising tensions with the West. However, in the time since, the 2015 nuclear deal Rouhani shepherded with world powers has collapsed and tensions have been boiling for years with the U.S.

Hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who came to power in 2021, has pushed the program forward. Meanwhile, Iran enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels and enough material for several atomic bombs, though U.S. intelligence agencies and others assess Tehran has not begun actively seeking a nuclear weapon.

On Friday, France, Germany and the United Kingdom condemned an Iranian satellite launch on Jan. 20, similarly calling it capable of helping Iran develop long-range ballistic missiles.

“We have longstanding concerns over Iran’s activity related to ballistic missile technologies that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” the countries said. “These concerns are reinforced by Iran’s continued nuclear escalation beyond all credible civilian justification.”

Tehran maintains the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Mideast, in part due to decades of sanctions following its 1979 Islamic Revolution and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis blocking it from advanced fighter jets and other weapon systems.

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