Iran’s satellite launch and JCPOA

On one hand, they are arguing for the necessity of removing the US sanctions, which is harming their economy greatly, while on the other hand, they are undertaking missions like launching satellites and raising political temperatures, unnecessarily (or by design). 

iran satellite launch
Amirali Hajizadeh, head of IRGC's aerospace division, before the launch of the first military satellite into orbit.(Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Ajey Lele

Is Iran playing a ‘smart diplomacy’ to salvage the long-term deal on its nuclear programme, formally known as, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? It is difficult to answer this question easily, but possibly they are checking the tolerance level of the western powers. Presently, they are giving mixed signals. On one hand, they are arguing for the necessity of removing the US sanctions, which is harming their economy greatly, while on the other hand, they are undertaking missions like launching satellites and raising political temperatures, unnecessarily (or by design). 

Possibly, Iran wanted to end the year 2021 by giving a message about their military preparedness and hence they undertook a launch of three satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). This launch could be viewed as an indirect demonstration of the capabilities of their missile programme and also about their ability to launch spy satellites.On Dec 30, 2021 Iran launched three satellites into space using their indigenously developed Simorgh/Safir-2 launch vehicle. This vehicle is the successor of their first launch vehicle called Safir. If Iran has undertaken this launch for indirect signaling of technical competencies of their military capabilities, then it could be said that their ‘messaging attempt’ has failed miserably,since this space launch itself has failed to put payloads into the desired orbit. Purely, looking from the angle of Iran’s space programme, it could be said that this failure is also a big setback to their space ambitions.

Iran has been testing the capabilities of its Simorgh space rocket since 2016 and till date has undertaken six launches with five of them ending in failures. The first launch, which was a success, was actually a sub-orbital launch. Six months back a satellite launch had happened (Jun 2021), also resulting in a failure. As per the US agencies such launch had taken place, while interestingly, Iran claims that this launch never happened! For the recent launch, Iran has officially claimed that for the payload to enter orbit, it requires reaching speeds above 7,600 metres/second, but the system could achieve the speed of only 7,350 meters/second.

The Dec 30, 2021 launch never came as a surprise. During the early Dec 2021, the US intelligence agencies had found out that Iran is preparing for a space launch. In fact, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) itself had reported a few weeks back that Iran is planning to launch four different satellites in the near future. The name of these satellites was announced as Zafar-2, Pars-1, and Nahid-1 &2. Actually, two years back Iran had attempted to launch a satellite called Zafar 1, an earth imaging satellite, by using the same vehicle. Unfortunately, that satellite had also failed to stay in orbit. The Pars-1 is also an earth imaging/remote sensing satellite, while the Nahid category of satellites have been developed for telecommunications purposes.

Iran’s space programme (became active since 2005) has been a mixed bag of successes and till date they have managed few successful LEO launches. It is obvious that apart from routine civilian requirements, Iran has an interest in space technologies for strategic purposes too. Particularly, owing to the nature of their relationship with Israel, they have an interest towards developing their own spy satellites.

Normally, states like Iran and North Korea get bracketed as states, which are undertaking satellite launches to fulfill their (concealed) missile ambitions. It gets argued that these states cannot test missiles owing to UN restrictions put on them and issues related to Missile technology control regime (MTCR). However, both these states are much brazen in their approach and have already tested missiles and are also having a good missile inventory. More importantly, for testing the missile one of the crucial technologies,which needs to be tested, is about the re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Actually, this technology never gets tested during a satellite launch. Hence, to bracket every space launch of Iran (or North Korea) as an attempt to demonstrate their missile capability actually amounts to self-indulgent behaviour, which the western powers are finding getting into. Possibly, by doing this they are trying to hide their diplomatic failures to control these states.

Iran undertaking a space launch (at geopolitical level, success or failure of the launch at this stage may not be that important) when the discussions on JCPOA are at critical juncture, indicates that Iran is giving a message that it can withstand the economic pressures and would not make major compromises to seal the deal. This also exposes the limitations of financial sanctions. It is very clear that Iran is unlikely to concede to any hard position taken by the Biden administration. With the Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria fiasco, the US has learnt in a hard way, about the limitations of finding military solutions to the conflict. Let us hope that some sanity prevails amongst all the states negotiating the JCPOA and a positive result emerges.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail.com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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