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Iranian President Raisi’s Renewed Emphasis on Space Is Likely to Create New Tensions

Western press reporting on the first 100 days of Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, has naturally focused on his impact on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. But in Iran, officials refer to three, not two, “power-creating” (eghtedar-saz) industries: nuclear, missiles, and space. And it is space, more so than either nuclear or missiles, where Raisi has focused his early public efforts. And it is Iran’s moves in space that will probably present President Joe Biden with the first challenge of the post-nuclear deal era.

In his first 100 days, Raisi has moved to place his imprint by reinvigorating Iran’s space program, the results of which will be visible in the coming months and years. Raisi has now set in motion a process that will result in Iran launching more satellites in the coming year, unveiling new space launch vehicles, and breaking ground on a new space launch facility in southern Iran. These developments will understandably be interpreted by Western media in the context of Iran’s missile programs and the broader security situation. But it is important to understand that Iran is also deeply committed to the economic, military, and security uses of outer space.

The Biden administration will have to choose how to respond to Iran’s growing presence in space. Will the United States try to balance its legitimate concerns about proliferation with Iran’s right to access space? Or will it treat Iran as a pariah, hoping that vocal opposition to Iran’s space launches will somehow produce a different result than the same approach did with North Korea?

Raisi Moves to Revive Iran’s Space Programs

Raisi is very publicly attempting to reinvigorate an Iranian space program that has been struggling in recent years. His new communications minister has criticized the state of the space program left by his predecessor — he called it “sorrowful” and “backwards” and sacked the head of the Iranian Space Agency. Raisi chaired a meeting of the Supreme Space Council — the country’s highest-level space policymaking organization — which had not met for more than a decade. At that meeting, Raisi committed Iran to launching more satellites into low earth orbit and reaching geostationary orbit by 2026. 

Iran has two space programs: a state space program and a parallel program run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The state space program is under Iran’s president, who chairs the Supreme Space Council. The council, in turn, oversees the Iranian Space Agency, which contracts with entities under the communications, defense, and science ministries — and increasingly, Iran’s private sector. We use the phrase “state” space program rather than “civilian” because Iran’s military is fully integrated into this program.

The Revolutionary Guard’s space program exists outside this structure — and outside of Raisi’s control — just as the guard corps itself reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader through the Armed Forces General Staff, not to Iran’s president or defense minister. The Revolutionary Guard has organized and implemented its own parallel efforts to develop launchers, satellites, and ground facilities for military purposes. The guard has described its space efforts as a “Super Project” (abar-perozheh) that integrates a complex of projects related to satellites, launchers, and satellite ground stations. To implement these efforts, the Revolutionary Guard manages its own parallel ecology of implementing organizations including research centers and a university.

The relationship between the state and the Revolutionary Guard’s space programs is captured by a term often used to describe American defense contractors — “competimates” (a portmanteau of “competitors” and “teammates”). These two programs mostly compete, for example in their efforts to develop space launch vehicles, but they also collaborate. Over time, the balance between competition and collaboration has shifted back and forth. The presence of the Aerospace Force commander — who oversees the Revolutionary Guard’s space efforts — at the recent meeting of the Supreme Space Council is one sign that the balance may be shifting in the direction of greater collaboration.

Iran’s state space program under Raisi is organized around two main goals: mastering the “space technology cycle” (charkheh-ye fanavari-e fazai) and sending “humans to space” (ensan be faza). The “space technology cycle” is by far the larger effort of the two. This encompasses Iran’s development of satellites and the space launch vehicles to deliver them to various space orbits. The space technology cycle also involves constructing facilities across the country to launch and control satellites and receive and exploit their data. The language of a “cycle” seems to be borrowed from the nuclear field, where Iran’s goal is to master the full nuclear fuel cycle. The conception is consistent with a regime that emphasizes self-sufficiency (khod-kafai) in the development of technology. The “humans-to-space” effort is far smaller, but very real, and is aiming to launch an Iranian astronaut to orbit onboard an Iranian launcher by 2032.

Iran’s goals under its state space program are longstanding and genuine. Iranian leaders see space, along with nuclear and missile capabilities, as important “power-creating” (eghtedar-saz) industries for Iran’s economy, military, and security. Iran’s official goal is to achieve “first place in the region” in terms of space capabilities. Iranian officials frequently emphasize joining what they call the “space club” of technologically advanced states. While Iran’s military is deeply involved in Iran’s space programs, it would be wrong to see the space program as a mere cover for Iran’s significant and very public missile programs.

‘A Surprising Number of Launches’

Iran has real goals in space. These goals include showing that Iran can, on a routine basis, place satellites in low earth orbit and operate them and placing Iran’s first satellite in a 36,000 kilometer geostationary orbit for civilian and military uses of remote sensing, communications, and navigation services. Iran’s goals require it to develop families of satellites and space launchers of increasing capability — including a giant launcher to use cryogenic rocket engines — and constructing a major new launch site at Chabahar along the country’s southeast coast.

The steps taken in the first 100 days of the Raisi presidency suggest we are likely to see Iranian attempts to make serious and rapid progress toward its space goals over the next year.

First, Raisi has emphasized that Iranian satellite launches must become routine, what he calls “stabilizing” (tasbit) Iran’s presence in low earth orbit. This means Iran will likely increase the launches of remote sensing and communications satellites using its Simorgh and Zoljanah space launch vehicles. One outcome of the Supreme Space Council meeting was a detailed launch schedule running through 1401 (the year ending in March 2023). Iran is currently building new satellites and has a backlog of older satellites awaiting launch. According to industry officials, the key “choke point” (galugah) has been “launching and launchers.” We also expect Iran to conduct test launches as part of launcher development and as incremental steps toward launching a satellite to geostationary orbit and launching an astronaut to low earth orbit. If it can overcome the launch problems it has experienced in recent years, Iran could conduct a surprising number of launches in the coming year.

Beyond launches, Iran will likely unveil new launch vehicles and satellites. Iran has already shown small-scale models of large liquid-fueled space launchers under development, like the Sarir and Soroush. Both the state and Revolutionary Guard space programs are developing solid-fueled space launchers as well. New satellites are likely to include imaging satellites for civilian and military purposes, with resolutions down to one meter.

Iran will also likely announce the construction of a new national launch site at Chabahar. Iran intends this site along the coast in southeastern Iran as the main location for future space launches — of both satellites and astronauts — due to its position near the equator, its proximity to the Indian Ocean for safe launch corridors, and the region’s small population.

The Revolutionary Guard is unlikely to leave the spotlight solely to the state space program. Iran’s draft national budget presented this month includes a line item for the guard’s Aerospace Force to accelerate (shetab-bakhshi) the development of its space industry. Though it is less transparent about the goals for its parallel space program, we expect the Revolutionary Guard to continue its development of solid-propellant space launch vehicles, an area of high concern for the West because a solid-propellant space launcher would be a far more plausible intercontinental-range ballistic missile than Iran’s liquid-propellant space launchers.

Resist the North Korea Approach

A series of high-profile Iranian steps in space — especially launches and the development of new space launchers — will attract significant public attention and likely generate international concern about how Iran’s space launch capabilities will further its development of ballistic missiles. Iranian officials are well aware of the international implications of these activities. Raisi has reportedly directed that Iran will announce such events only after the fact, probably to minimize foreign pressure and avoid embarrassment from failures.

The Biden administration will face an enormous temptation to depict these launches as provocative and to present Iran’s development of space launch capabilities as part of an effort by Tehran to develop the ability to strike the United States. With Iran’s military — including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — involved in Iran’s space efforts, that temptation is understandable. But the Biden administration should resist it.

No, Iran’s development of space capabilities is not a purely civilian endeavor. Space technologies such as satellites are inherently dual-use and Iran seeks to use space for the same reasons the United States does — for economic and military purposes.

According to Raisi, if Iran is not present in space, it will have to move on the “highway” (otoban) built by others. Many world leaders, especially in the developing world, would agree with this sentiment. Many are sympathetic to Iran’s ambitions in space and skeptical of efforts to keep the club of space-faring states exclusive. Around the world, most people see space as a realm of legitimate scientific, economic, and even military activity. States have a right to both explore and use outer space under the Outer Space Treaty and a right to self-defense under the U.N. charter. It is not possible to build a coalition around the idea that Iran has no right to access space, as Trump administration officials suggested, or to make the problem go away by sabotaging Iranian space activities, despite legitimate concern about how Iran’s growing space capabilities could strengthen its military. Most people around the world see space as primarily an arena for economic and scientific development for all, where some military activity necessarily occurs — not the other way around. There is no support internationally for dividing the world into space haves and have-nots the way the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does with nuclear weapons nor for using the Missile Technology Control Regime to deny countries access to space.

With the coming collapse of the nuclear deal, the United States and its partners have a choice to make about dealing with Iran. One path is to declare Iran an international pariah, like North Korea, and seek to tighten economic sanctions until the regime abandons its nuclear, missile, and space ambitions or collapses. In this case, no negotiations are necessary. It is far from certain, however, that this path would force Iran to dismantle its space program or collapse the Islamic Republic any more than it ended North Korea’s weapons programs or the rule of the Kim family in North Korea. The Obama administration’s ill-fated 2012 “Leap Day Deal” with North Korea fell apart precisely because North Korea insisted on conducting a space launch. The United States balked, arguing that North Korea’s space program was nothing more than a cover for its missile ambitions. Perhaps that was correct. But the collapse of the deal did not stop North Korea from conducting that space launch, nor did the subsequent pressure prevent North Korea from building an intercontinental ballistic missile. And when North Korea did successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017, it used a very different rocket than its space launcher.

The other path is to seek diplomatic settlements with Iran on a range of issues — including limits on the most concerning elements of the state and Revolutionary Guard space programs — attempting to reduce the tension in the Persian Gulf and between the two countries. But diplomatic agreements require accepting the continued existence of the Islamic Republic. And Iran, like many other countries around the world, believes that its long-term economic, military, and security well-being requires the development of the same space capabilities that the United States and other wealthy countries value so highly. Iran is committed to the development of its space capabilities for the same reasons the United States is. And like the nuclear fuel cycle, Iran is not going to abandon its space technology cycle under pressure or trade it in its entirety for sanctions relief — the space program has already weathered two decades of foreign pressure, sanctions, and trade controls. Instead, the United States will need to recognize Iran’s space program not simply as a stalking horse for growing missile capabilities, but as an outlet for Iran’s growing scientific and technological capabilities where limits can be negotiated.

Jim Lamson is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, as well as a staff member at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Image: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

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