An Overview of Iran’s Counterspace Strategy and Space Program

Safir rocket on launch pad (Credit: ISA)

Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpts from the report summarizes Iran’s counterspace strategy and its launch vehicle and satellite programs.

Country Summary

Iran has a nascent space program that includes building and launching small satellites that have limited capability, although it has experienced several recent failed launch attempts. Technologically, it is unlikely Iran has the capacity to build on-orbit or direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) capabilities, and little military motivations to do so at this point. Iran has demonstrated an EW capability to persistently interfere with commercial satellite signals, although the capability against military signals is difficult to ascertain.

Launch Vehicles

Iran is also developing space launch capabilities. It already possesses a proven space launch vehicle, the Safir rocket, which has been used to place four small satellites into orbit. Iran is developing a theoretically more capable SLV known as the Simorgh, but it has experienced significant delays.

Simorgh shares some design similarities with the North Korean Unha SLV, and was initially meant to have been launched in 2010. Its delay could mean that its development has been harder than anticipated, or that sanctions on ballistic missile and space technology have limited Iran’s ability to get materials it needs, or that there have been test launches that failed and not been reported.

In April 2016, the first known test of the Simorgh was reported by U.S. intelligence agencies to have been a “partial success” that did not reach orbit. A second test in July 2017 was reported by Iranian press to have been a success, but U.S. intelligence officials stated it was a catastrophic failure and no objects reached orbit. In January 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran about holding what he termed “provocative” space vehicle launches.

Iran has experienced a string of space launch failures. Iran held a Simorgh launch in January 2019 which failed to launch its satellite, Payem. Intelligence analysts believe that Iran attempted and failed in the launch of another satellite in February 2019, the Doosti satellite, using a Safir rocket.

In August 2019, commercial satellite imagery from Planet documented a launch pad explosion of an Iranian rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center. The type of launch pad where the explosion took place was the same kind used to launch Safir rockets.

In February 2020, Iran tried to launch the Zafar I, a communications satellite, via the Simorgh SLV; however, it experienced an anomaly at some point between the second and third stages. Ahmad Hosseini, Defense Ministry space program spokesperson, stated, “Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit.”

As of writing (February 2020), the last time an Iranian satellite reached orbit was the Fajr satellite, which was launched in February 2015.

Both the Safir and Simorgh are liquid-fueled rockets. They launch from a single space launch facility after a significant set-up period, making them not ideal as counterspace launch vehicles.

There are reports that a solid-propellant space launch vehicle is being worked on by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Jihad Self-Sufficiency Organization at the Shahroud facility, which was built in 2010.

Satellite imagery has detected a limited number of what appear to be engine tests at the facility, and in February 2020, Iranian officials released imagery of a motor being tested there, which they stated was of the Salman engine (intended to be a smaller upper stage motor).

Footage showed that the developers appear to have been able to make at least two technologies that would be helpful for an SLV program and also a long-range ballistic missile capability: carbon fiber motor casings and thrust vector control (via flexible nozzles).

The same day that the Salman motor footage was released, Iranian news reported that a solid-fuelled SLV, the Zuljanah, was finished and would able to launch the Nahid I satellite, potentially as early as June 2020.

Satellite Programs

Iran has no known co-orbital ASAT capabilities or development program, and its indigenous satellite manufacturing and operations capabilities are very basic. Iran has put a small number of low-mass satellites on orbit using the Safir SLV.

Its pace of launch attempts is slow, possibly due to the effect of sanctions on its ability to make progress, perhaps because they are sensitive to international reaction to launches because of their similarities to ballistic missile launch. Iran has launched four satellites into orbit: Omid (2009), Rasad (2011), Navid (2012), and Fajr (2015).

These were all small satellites, 50 kg or lighter, lofted into such low-altitude orbits that atmospheric drag brought them down within weeks. No data have been published from their satellites, so either they did not work as anticipated or they worked but the results were not impressive and judged not to improve the reputation of the program.

Iran does have plans to launch larger satellites, both domestically-developed and through bilateral cooperation with other countries, but many of those plans have been significantly delayed. Iran first announced that it would attempt to launch its Nahid-2 communications satellite before the end of 2018; at writing (February 2020), it is now planned to be launched at some point in 2020.

Iran has not demonstrated the ability to manufacture satellites with significant on-orbit maneuverability or remote sensing capabilities, nor the ability to successfully do the precision command-and-control (C2), that would be necessary to develop an effective co-orbital ASAT capability.