Iranian regime launches satellites into space as tensions rise in Middle East

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The Iranian government said Sunday it had successfully launched three satellites into space with a rocket that has suffered multiple failures in the past, the latest in a program the West says improves Tehran’s ballistic missiles .

The launch comes as heightened tensions grip the entire Middle East due to Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, sparking fears of regional conflict.

Although Iran has not intervened militarily in the conflict, it has faced increased pressure within its theocracy to act after a deadly Islamic State suicide attack earlier this month and as proxy groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels carry out war-related attacks.

Meanwhile, Western countries remain concerned about the rapid expansion of Iran’s nuclear program.

Images broadcast by Iranian state television show a nighttime launch of the Simorgh rocket. An Associated Press analysis showed the event occurred at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province.

“The roar of the Simorgh (rocket) echoed in the sky and the infinite space of our country,” Abbas Rasooli, a journalist with state television, said in the footage.

State television named the launched satellites Mahda, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1. He describes the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and Hatef are nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication respectively.

Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Isa Zarepour, said the Mahda had already sent signals back to Earth.

There have been five consecutive failed launches of the Simorgh program, another satellite carrier rocket. The failures of the Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket are part of a series of setbacks in recent years for Iran’s civilian space program, including deadly fires and a rocket explosion on a launch pad that attracted the attention of former US President Donald Trump.

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Missile program sanctions expired

Images showed the rocket launched on Sunday carried the slogan “We Can” in Farsi, likely referring to previous failures.

The Simorgh is a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket that the Iranians have described as being designed to place satellites in low Earth orbit.

However, the U.S. intelligence community’s Global Threat Assessment for 2023 indicates that the development of satellite launchers “shortens the time frame” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, as it uses similar technology.

This report specifically cites the Simorgh as a possible dual-use rocket.

The United States has previously said Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran not to undertake any activities involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

UN sanctions linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program expired last October.

A close-up view of a red and white rocket prepared for launch.
This photo released Sunday by Iran’s Defense Ministry purports to show Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” the satellite carrier before launch at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province. (Iranian Defense Ministry/Associated Press)

Under Iran’s relatively moderate former President Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic slowed its space program for fear of escalating tensions with the West.

However, since then, the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by Rouhani with world powers has collapsed and tensions have been simmering for years with hard-line US President Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who came to power in 2021, pushed the agenda forward.

Meanwhile, Iran is enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels and enough material for several atomic bombs, even though U.S. intelligence agencies and others believe Tehran has not began actively seeking a nuclear weapon.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Friday condemned the launch of an Iranian satellite on January 20, also calling it capable of helping Iran develop long-range ballistic missiles.

“We have long been concerned about Iran’s activities related to ballistic missile technologies capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” the two countries said.

“These concerns are heightened by Iran’s continued nuclear escalation beyond any credible civilian justification.”

Tehran has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, in part due to decades of sanctions following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the U.S. embassy hostage crisis that prevented it from accessing advanced combat aircraft and other weapon systems.

The U.S. military and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.

However, the US military has quietly acknowledged the success of the January 20 launch by the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.

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