Iran’s Latest Satellite Launch

By Edward Carney

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that satellite imagery had pointed to another attempted launch of an Iranian satellite, less than a month after a previous launch that gave rise to renewed condemnation from the United States.

The January launched failed to place a satellite into orbit as planned, although it reportedly surprised international observers with successful firings of the first two-stages in a three stage rocket. Although the third stage then misfired, its very existence was previously unknown to persons outside the Islamic Republic.

In this sense, the effort simultaneously showcased the persistent shortcomings and the potential advancements of the Iranian missile program.

Although neither the January launch nor the one that took place this week were explicitly military in nature, the rocket technology involved in prospective satellite launches is very similar to that which is used in ballistic missiles.

These weapons, which could be used in the delivery of a nuclear warhead, have been a serious point of contention between Iran and Western nations, especially in the wake of the 2015 agreement over the Iranian nuclear program. Although that deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, does not address Iran’s missile capabilities, the accompanying United Nations Security Council resolution “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid all work on ballistic missiles that are “designed to be capable of” carrying a nuclear payload.

The vague language of this provision has given the Iranian regime an opportunity to ignore it, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has accordingly carried out more than a dozen relevant test-launches since 2016. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA last May, citing Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile development as a major reason why. This rationale has been reiterated many times, including in the White House’s response to Iran’s announced plans to launch communication satellites.

But as the AP report emphasized, the latest launch was conducted in open defiance of American warnings and the critical response to last month’s attempt. It was not immediately clear whether the second attempt was more successful than the first, which apparently involved a different type of rocket.

Iranian authorities made no public comment to corroborate the satellite images, although these showed propaganda messages written on the launch pad to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the supposed advancements in domestic production of high-tech goods, including military equipment.

Far from shrinking away from its boasting of these advancements in the wake of the latest American criticisms, the IRGC immediately followed up on the satellite launches with an even more provocative gesture, unveiling yet another ballistic missile.

The Dezful surface-to-surface missile reportedly has a range of 1,000 kilometers, or about 620 miles. According to Al Jazeera, this places Israel and various US military bases within range of the new weapon, although that range is still comparatively modest.

The Islamic Republic has voluntarily adopted a limit of 2,000 kilometers on the range of its weapons, but this limit is arguably rendered meaningless by various statements from the IRGC and other Iranian officials proclaiming that the limit could be quickly and easily exceeded if the regime decided to expand its reach.

A variety of recent statements from such officials have given the clear impression that this is precisely what the regime intends to achieve, both with its missile technology and via a broader military buildup. The commander of Iranian naval forces, for instance, recently declared that the nation stands ready to dispatch a flotilla to the Atlantic Ocean, ostensibly in an effort to compensate somewhat for the presence of Western naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

On Friday, Business Insider reported that Iranian state media had expanded upon this propaganda by releasing a “quirky animated video” that shows an American aircraft carrier and several destroyers being sunk by an Iranian submarine.

The video concludes with another reference to the 40-year anniversary of the Revolution, after declaring that the Islamic Republic has achieved domestic mastery of “very advanced” military subs. Business Insider underscores the inherent exaggeration in this claim and notes that Iran’s military technology is overwhelmingly archaic. However, the report also acknowledges that Iranian torpedoes could do damage to US Navy vessels, provided that the noisy submarines were able to get close enough.

This is in keeping with other expert assessments that have been published in recent months about Iran’s military capabilities, in comparison with those of the US. It is expected that in the event of war or an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz, the IRGC and the Iranian military would be capable of inflicting some damage through the use of asymmetrical tactics such as the use of sea mines. But this does not alter the fact that the Iranian military is in no way equipped to stand up to a global superpowers and would almost certainly not risk such an adventure.

Still, this has not stopped Tehran from boasting of its military readiness, or even from declaring that it would be victorious in a battle against the US. Much of this propaganda is tied to the country’s missile development, as evidenced by comments made on Thursday by Brigadier General Abbas Sadehi, the head of public relations for the Iranian armed forces. Sadehi insisted that with 40 different types of missiles, including intermediate range ballistic missiles and recently unveiled surface-to-surface cruise missiles, the Islamic Republic has become the “first missile power in the region.”

According to the state-run Iran Project, Sadehi went on to say that “Iran is capable of manufacturing submarines, destroyers, advanced fighters such as Kosar, UAVs, etc. under the auspices of the Islamic Revolution.” He attributed this supposed upsurge in military capabilities to the effects fo the Shiite theocracy over the past 40 years, declaring that the Revolution “revived religion” and demonstrated to the world that “religion creates motivation toward prosperity.”

Other officials have tied the regime’s identity to the notion of regional unity under the banner of the Islamic Republic and the “axis of resistance” against Western influence. This element of Iranian propaganda was evident on Thursday in remarks delivered by Major General Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, at a military exhibition attended by foreign ambassadors.

Baqeri repeated the regime’s longstanding rejection of any and all negotiations over the country’s ballistic missile program, and then vaguely condemned the “different plots” of “arrogant powers.” As well as declaring that the nation will not be “intimidated into bargaining,” Baqeri promised that Iran would continue to take on larger roles in the surrounding region, and would thereby help other adversaries of the US to bolster their mechanisms for opposition to Western interests. Toward this end, Press TV reported, Thursday’s event signaled Tehran’s readiness to share military technology and know-how with neighboring countries.

Such declarations are sure to be met with fresh ire from the US, and perhaps also from Europe, which has spoken out against Iranian ballistic missile tests despite also striving to preserve the nuclear agreement and provide Iran with economic assistance.

“The United States will continue to be relentless in building support around the world to confront the Iranian regime's reckless ballistic missile activity, and we will continue to impose sufficient pressure on the regime so that it changes its malign behavior - including by fully implementing all of our sanctions,” said US State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino in a statement on Thursday.