On Aug. 9, Russia will be launching a new satellite from Iran as part of a deal between the two countries. The satellite is intended for surveillance of Iran’s borders, among other things, but Russia has told Tehran that it wishes to use it to support its invasion of Ukraine.
Iranian space surveillance
Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced that the rocket would be launched on Tuesday, delivering an Iranian remote sensing satellite dubbed the Khayyam satellite, which is believed to be named after the Persian polymath Omar Khayyam.
“In cooperation with Russia, the Khayyam satellite will be launched next week from the Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan by a Soyuz satellite carrier,” the Iranian Space Agency said.
The satellite is equipped with measurement devices that are intended to improve “productivity in the field of agriculture” and will also be used to monitor the country’s water resources, forests and mines, and will help in mineral discovery, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said.
Western security officials believe that the satellite’s camera has a resolution of 1.2 meters, slightly less resolution than U.S. spy satellites.
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The news of the rocket launch came after Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Iran on July 19, where he met Iranian president Ibrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The leaders of both countries called for strengthening “long-term cooperation.”
Years after the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord in 2018, the Biden administration has been working to reinstate the deal.
Last month, it was revealed that Iran offered to provide its surveillance drones to Russia to help with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last year the Washington Post reported that Russia negotiated, in secret, with officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to build a remote-sensing satellite to give Iran the ability to perform surveillance for both military and civilian purposes.
The officials also believe that Iran would greatly benefit from their ability to “task” the satellite to survey chosen areas, including military facilities in Israel, and other infrastructure and economic areas within their neighbors.
The Khayyam satellite is not the first satellite to be launched by Iran. Another military satellite called Noor-1 was launched into space in 2020, but it suffered from technical issues before being called a “tumbling webcam” by the Pentagon.
In June, Iran claimed that it successfully launched a satellite carrier rocket called Zuljanah, but the rocket supposedly exploded after launch.
Despite being intended for Iranian use, Russia told Tehran that it would take control of the satellite for its own purposes. The prolonged conflict in Ukraine has prompted Moscow to plan to use the satellite for several months — perhaps longer — to enhance its own surveillance capabilities in the region.
Iran claims that its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only, and that it has not breach the nuclear deal.
However, there are fears within the West and amongst Iran’s neighbors that the satellite will conduct military surveillance to share with pro-Iranian militia groups, in addition to the incorporation of technologies on par with those used for ballistic missiles, The Times of Israel reported.
“This is obviously a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies in the Middle East and abroad,” Richard Goldberg, senior adviser for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, told the Washington Post. “As Iran perfects its missile arsenal — from short, medium to longer-range missiles, alongside its growing UAV capability throughout the Middle East — being able to sync those capabilities with satellite capabilities and surveillance will only increase the lethality of the Iranian threat,” he said.