Iran confirms planned rocket launches

Launch comes as tension runs high over Iran's nuclear programme

A satellite image shows a rocket about to be attached to a launch tower at Imam Khomeini Space Centre near Semnan, Iran, on Tuesday.  Maxar Technologies via AP
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Iran revealed on Wednesday that it plans two tests of its new solid-fuelled rocket after satellite photos showed preparations at a desert launching pad previously used in the programme.

Tehran said it would launch its satellite-carrying Zuljanah rocket twice more after an earlier launch, Defence Ministry spokesman Ahmad Hosseini told state news agency Irna.

He did not elaborate on times for the tests or when the previous launch occurred.

Each of the Zuljanah’s three stages will be evaluated during the tests, Mr Hosseini said.

At Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of frequent recent failed attempts to put a satellite into orbit, images from Maxar Technologies showed a launching pad on Tuesday.

A rocket on a transporter, preparing to be lifted and put on a launch tower, was shown in one image. A later picture on Tuesday afternoon showed the rocket apparently on the tower.

Irna reported in May that Iran would probably have seven homemade satellites ready for launch by the end of its calendar year in March 2023.

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

There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh, a type of satellite-carrying rocket.

A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

The launch pad used in Tuesday’s preparations remains scarred from an explosion in August 2019 that drew the attention of then-US president Donald Trump.

Mr Trump later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure.

Satellite images from February suggested a failed Zuljanah launch this year, although Iran did not acknowledge it.

The failures raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s programme, something Mr Trump hinted at by tweeting then that the US “was not involved in the catastrophic accident.”

But there has been no evidence offered to show foul play in any of the failures, and space launches remain challenging even for the world’s most successful programmes.

A satellite image shows activity at a launching pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre near Semnan, Iran, on Tuesday. Maxar Technologies / Reuters

Meanwhile, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in April 2020 revealed its own secret space programme by successfully launching a satellite into orbit.

The Guard launched another satellite in March from another site in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Iranian state TV aired footage of a successful Zuljanah launch in February 2021.

The US has claimed that Iran’s satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution and has called on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The US intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, published in March, claims such rockets “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran because it uses “similar technologies".

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 say Iran abandoned an organised military nuclear programme in 2003.

But Iran’s likely preparations for a launch come as tension has been heightened in recent days over its nuclear programme.

Iran now says it will remove 27 IAEA surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites as it enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Iran and the US insist they are willing to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Tehran drastically curbed its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.

Mr Trump withdrew the US from the accord in 2018, setting in motion attacks and confrontations starting in 2019 that continue today into the administration of President Joe Biden.

Talks in Vienna about reviving the deal have been on a “pause” since March.

Building any nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time, analysts say, although they warn its advances make the programme more dangerous.

Israel has threatened in the past that it would carry out a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran, and it is already suspected in recent killings of Iranian officials.

Updated: June 16, 2022, 5:30 AM