Iran is preparing for a space launch on Tuesday as satellite images show a rocket on a launch pad in a rural desert as tensions remain over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Images from Maxar Technologies show a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini space port in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of repeated failed attempts to launch a satellite into orbit.
A series of photos shows a rocket on a transporter, preparing to take off into a launch tower. The rocket was apparently seen in the tower in a photo later Tuesday afternoon.
Iran has not acknowledged an impending launch into space, and its mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, its state-run IRNA news agency said in May that Iran would probably have seven home-made satellites ready for launch by the end of the Persian calendar year in March 2023.
It was not clear when these launches would occur, although rocket launches usually meant a launch was imminent. The NASA Fire Satellite, which detects light flashes from space, did not immediately see any activity on the site Tuesday evening.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit, and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. However, the program had recent problems. There have been five consecutive failed launches for the Simorgh program, a rocket carrying one type of satellite. A fire at the Imam Khomeini space port in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The United States has said that launching an Iranian satellite violated a UN Security Council resolution and called on Tehran not to engage in any activity related to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, released in March, said such a satellite launcher “shortens the deadline” for an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran because it uses “similar technology.”
U.S. Pentagon and State Department officials did not immediately return calls for comment.
Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, has previously maintained that it has no military components for satellite launches and rocket tests. U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
The launch pad used during Tuesday’s preparations was damaged by an explosion in August 2019 that even caught the attention of then-US President Donald Trump. He then tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the failed launch. Satellite imagery from February suggested another failed launch earlier this year, although Iran did not acknowledge it.
The continued failure has raised suspicions of outside interference in Iran’s program, which Trump himself indicated when he tweeted that the United States was not “involved in a catastrophic accident.” However, no evidence has been provided to show foul play in case of any failure, and space launch remains difficult even for the most successful programs in the world.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards successfully unveiled their own secret space program in April 2020 by launching a satellite into orbit. In March, the Guard launched another satellite at another site in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
The tension has increased
However, tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program have escalated in recent days, with Iran preparing for a possible launch. Iran has said it will remove 27 IAEA surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites because it has enriched uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.
Iran and the United States reiterated their willingness to rejoin Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw the Islamic Republic severely restrict its prosperity in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the treaty in 2018, triggering a series of attacks and clashes since 2019 that continue to this day under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Talks in Vienna on reviving the agreement have been on “break” since March.
It would take more time for Iran to build a nuclear bomb if it pursued weapons, analysts say, although they warned that Tehran’s progress would make its program more dangerous. Israel has in the past threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a series of recent killings targeting Iranian officials.