Iran appeared to be readying for a space launch Tuesday, satellite images showing a rocket on a rural desert launch pad suggest, as tensions remain high over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The images from Maxar Technologies showed a launch pad at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of frequent recent failed attempts to put a satellite into orbit.
One set of images showed a rocket on a transporter preparing to be lifted and put on a launch tower. A later image Tuesday afternoon showed the rocket apparently on the tower.
Iran did not acknowledge a forthcoming launch at the space port, 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 in May said that Iran likely would have seven homemade satellites ready for launch by the end of the Persian calendar year in March 2023.
It wasn’t clear when these launches would take place, though erecting a rocket typically means a launch is imminent. NASA’s fire satellites, which detect flashes of light from space, did not immediately see any activity over the site late Tuesday night.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The United States has alleged that Iran’s satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution endorsing the joint plan committing Iran to pursuing a nuclear program only for peaceful purposes and has called on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, published in March, claimed the Simorgh and other space launch vehicles shortened the timeline to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran as they use “similar technologies.”
U.S. officials at both the Pentagon and State Department did not immediately respond to questions over the launch preparations.
Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously maintained that its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
The launch pad used in Tuesday’s preparations remains scarred from an explosion in August 2019 that even drew the attention of then U.S. President Donald Trump. He later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure.
Satellite images from February suggested another failed launch earlier this year, though Iran did not acknowledge it.
The successive failures raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s program, something Trump himself hinted at by tweeting at the time that the U.S. “was not involved in the catastrophic accident.” There’s been no evidence offered, however, to show foul play in any of the failures, and space launches remain challenging even for the world’s most successful programs.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard launched another satellite this March at another site in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Iran’s likely preparations for a launch come as tensions have been heightened in recent days over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says it will remove 27 IAEA surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites even though it now enriches uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.
Both Iran and the U.S. insist they are willing to re-enter Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw the Islamic republic drastically curb its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the accord in 2018, setting in motion a series of attacks and confrontations beginning in 2019 that continue today with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Talks in Vienna about reviving the deal have been on a “pause” since March.
Building a nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past that it would carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran — and already is suspected in a series of recent killings targeting Iranian officials and individuals associated with the nuclear program.