Iran is likely to have conducted a failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket and now appears to be preparing to try again.
It is the country’s latest effort to advance its space programme amid tension with the West over its tattered nuclear deal.
Satellite images, a US official and a rocket expert all confirmed the failed launch, earlier this month, at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province.
Iran’s space programme has suffered a series of high-profile losses, while its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard runs a parallel programme that launched a satellite into orbit last year.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Telecoms Minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, denied there had been a failed satellite launch, but offered no explanation for the activity at the spaceport. Iran’s mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment.
Satellite photos from Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies show preparations at the spaceport on June 6. Those images include what appear to be fuel tanks alongside a massive white gantry that houses a rocket, while scientists fuel it and prepare for launch. Before the launch, workers tow the gantry away to expose the rocket.
The number of fuel tanks, based on their size, appears to have been enough to fill the first and second stages of an Iranian Simorgh rocket, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The Simorgh is a satellite-carrying rocket that has been launched from the same area of the spaceport, he said.
Later satellite images on June 17 showed a decrease in activity at the site. Mr Lewis said analysts believe Iran launched the rocket at some point in that window.
“Nothing had blown up. There wasn’t a giant stain – like they had dumped the fuel – and the vehicles had kind of just moved around,” he said. “The overall level of activity at the site was much lower. So, to our mind, that looked like a launch.”
Air Force Lt Col Uriah Orland, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that “US Space Command is aware of the Iranian rocket launch failure which occurred early June 12”.
He did not elaborate on the failed launch, first reported by CNN.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Iran would have picked June 12 for a launch as Tehran typically schedules such launches for national commemorations. However, it did come in the run-up to Iran’s presidential election last week, in which Iran had hoped to boost turnout.
On Sunday, a new satellite image from Planet Labs showed renewed activity at the site. The image shows a mobile platform previously used to secure a Simorgh rocket at the gantry, a support vehicle seen at previous launches and a new line of fuel containers lined up at the site. Lewis said the equipment suggests that another launch is imminent.
In the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The programme has had recent troubles, however. A failed launch this month would be the fourth in a row for the Simorgh programme. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
A rocket explosion in August 2019 drew the attention of president Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure.
The successive failures raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s programme, something Mr Trump himself hinted at by tweeting at the time that the US “was not involved in the catastrophic accident”.
But Mr Lewis said such failures are common, especially when trying to put objects carefully into orbit.
Meanwhile, the Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space programme by launching a satellite into orbit. The head of the US Space Command later dismissed the satellite as “a tumbling webcam in space” that wouldn’t provide Iran with vital intelligence, though it showed Tehran’s ability to enter orbit.
The launch comes after the landslide victory of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s hardline judiciary chief tied to the mass execution of thousands in 1988.
The vote attracted the lowest turnout in a presidential election since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mr Raisi will take over from Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who guided Tehran into its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018, setting in motion months of tension in the wider Middle East that continues today. Diplomats in Vienna now are negotiating a way for both Iran and the US to re-enter the deal, in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The US has said such satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution and called on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously maintained that its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran abandoned an organised military nuclear programme in 2003.
The Simorgh, however, is far too large and too slow to fuel to be a good carrier for a nuclear-tipped weapon, Mr Lewis said.
“It’s a butter knife,” he said. “Could you stab someone with a butter knife? Yeah, but that’s not really the tool.”