The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Now that IRGC leadership in Iran’s space effort is out in the open, it can be expected that its homemade, long-range rockets with a global reach will be revealed soon, as well.

While attracting much less global attention than the more spectacular military missile program, Iran’s ostensibly “civilian” space program is nothing but an integral component of the military missile effort.

It behooves the Ayatollahs to declare a voluntary cap of 2,000 km. on the range of their ballistic and cruise missiles. This range provides them with enough clout to threaten every Middle Eastern country. The “self-restraint” in capping the range is useful for convincing gullible politicians, analysts and peace activists in Europe that Iran is not threatening them, thus avoiding sanctions and securing trade links.

Yet the vision of Iran’s ayatollahs is global, and the space program is a key component in realizing this vision. General Majid Mousavi, deputy commander of the IRGC Air and Space Force (IRGCASF) has been quite frank about this. In a 2014 interview he stated that the goal of Iran’s space launch program was “mainly to advance missile technologies under the guise of a civilian space program, especially to circumvent the self imposed 2,000 km. limitation on range.”

Yet he made this remark in Persian, not English. In English, Iran’s space program has had no military objectives whatsoever. It has been all about the peaceful use of space for the benefit of humanity.

Iran established a formal space program in 2004 under the auspices of the newly established Iran Space Agency, an arm of Iran’s Ministry of Communication. Its lowly position in the hierarchy matched its low level of funding which inevitably resulted in a spotty record. Building on the success of the military missile program, ISA’s first generation space launcher, the “Safir” was an adaptation of the Shahab 3 liquid propellant ballistic missile, itself hailing from the North Korean No Dong which in turn was based on a Russian design. The “Safir” used the quite reliable Shahab 3 as a first stage, atop of which was fitted a small liquid propellant second stage based on technologies from the North Korean Musudan, also purchased by Iran under the appellation “Khoramshar”. “Safir’s” first flight in August 2008 ended in a failure, but a second attempt in February 2009 succeeded, lofting a small satellite to a low earth orbit. Since Iran tends never to concede failures, the exact record since than is ambiguous. According to some sources, there has been a total of 8 Safir launches to date, of which only four (including the February 2009 flight) were successful. According to other sources, a total of 10 Safirs have been launched, of which six failed.

In 2010 Iran unveiled a second generation, much larger space launcher, the “Simorgh.” Its configuration showed a strong family resemblance to the North Korean Unhaa space launcher. It was first tested in a suborbital flight in April 2015. Since than, it has failed three times to reach orbit, with no success to date. In all, Iran has made between 11 and 13 space shots in the last twelve years, succeeding in only four of them – an abysmal record by all counts. While succeeding to join the select club of space-faring nations – in fact, it was the 9th nation to do so – this achievement was marred by repeated failures and lack of transparency. Iran’s government added bells and whistles to the core program by delving in suborbital tests with live monkeys, and by making sweeping promises of a forthcoming manned space flight program, the details of which remained nebulous, and which seems to have been quietly put to rest.

The shaky state of Iran’s space program was further accentuated by periodic reorganization of ISA and changes in its affiliation. According to some sources, the entire space program was quietly suspended by President Rouhani in 2015. If so, it was later revived because no less than four space launches were attempted between February 2019 and February 2020 – all ending in failures. The sharp contrast between this lackluster record and the dynamic, creative and successful missile programs is by itself an indication of the space program’s low priority in allocations of budgets and talent. So why did the Ayatollahs persevere in it?

Seen from closer quarters, the thin veneer of a civilian, “peaceful and altruistic space program aimed to benefit humanity” could barely conceal its true underlying military nature. This went beyond the use of military-derived technologies for the ostensibly civilian space launchers. The practice is not unique to Iran but is rather common in all space-faring nations, with many of today’s successful commercial space launchers still showing their lineage from military ballistic missiles.

What exposed the underlying military nature of Iran’s space program was the absence of the Iranian Space Agency officials at any key public event. Whenever there has been an achievement to brag about, it was the generals who step forward to reap the credit. ISA civilians are allowed front and center only for secondary events, such as showing space hardware in Iran’s parliament or sending animals to space aboard suborbital rockets. For example, when the first ready-to-fly stages of the Simorgh second generation space launcher were first unveiled on the production floor, the presenters were President Rouhani and the Minister of Defense, himself an IRGC general. No ISA official was allowed to share in the glory. When one considers this together with General Mousavi’s frank (if not too cautious) remark quoted above, the true purpose of Iran’s space program becomes very clear: To mask Iran’s global-range missile ambition behind a façade of respectability by exploiting  the gullibility of liberal-leaning analysts and decision makers in the West.

In April 23, 2020 another actor appeared on the stage in Iran’s space program – the all-powerful IRGC. In the early morning of that day Iran managed to loft its fifth satellite into a stable low earth orbit. There were however two important departures from previous Iranian space practice and policy. First, the agency in charge was the IRGC itself rather than ISA. Second, the satellite was launched from the mysterious Shahrood facility in north-eastern Iran, far away from the usual Homeini space center in Semnan near Tehran from which all previous space shots had been made. The satellite itself, dubbed “Noor 1” was officially declared as “Iran’s first military satellite” – thereby confirming what was obvious to numerous observers – that Iran has a military space program, and that it is ran directly by the IRGC and not by the civilian government.

The suspicion that the IRGC is building its own missile and space industry in parallel to, and in competition with, Iran’s airspace industries has been muted ever since the mysterious explosion at a secret facility in Bid Ganeh, an IRGC facility about 50 km. east of Tehran, officially described as a “missile base.” The violent explosion rattled windows in Tehran and killed General Hassen Moggadhem, the father of Iran’s missile programs, together with 16 of his top aides. Satellite images showed the site to be practically wiped out. The explosion was described by outside observers as an industrial accident that happened during the manufacturing processes of solid propellants. If so, the facility was more than a “missile base” – it was a missile factory, competing with the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG) which is officially the sole source for solid propellant rockets and missiles. The reason for such a seemingly redundant, wasteful and resource-guzzling effort is not clear. It could be part of a turf war between the IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Defense with its affiliated military industries. As well, it may be a top-secret effort to advance a politically sensitive black program that Iran’s regime is anxious to hide from the world – such as a development program of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) size rockets. The latter hypothesis gained more traction when the existence of the Shahrood facility was first noticed outside Iran in 2015.

Shahrood is a desert town about 330 km. east of Tehran. Forty kilometers or so south-east of the town is a stretch of flat desert, featuring a volcanic (or impact) crater. Overhead images from Western satellites revealed a new giant complex, featuring some facilities inside the crater and a mammoth launch pad for giant rockets. The size of the launch pad is astonishing, It features a two-meter thick ferro-concrete apron almost 200 meters long and 140 meters wide. A giant concrete trench, itself about 100 meters long is ready to direct the exhaust gases away from whatever gigantic rockets that are launched there and into the open desert. Later images show a giant launching tower positioned above the inlet of the exhaust trench. The axis of that immense launch pad is aligned to the south- east, providing a clear launch corridor towards the Indian Ocean. Remarkably, the construction of this gargantuan facility proceeded almost concurrently with the construction of the giant Homeini launch complex in the Semnan missile test range. Yet while the Homeini space center was trumpeted by the regime, not one word was said officially about the even larger facility being constructed in the remote desert. Obviously, the Shahrood complex was part of a black program.

Later images from Western satellites revealed significant activity within the crater. Over the years, structures similar to rocket test stands were added. In 2015, one of those structures exhibited a long ground scorch mark typical to solid propellant rocket tests. A second scorch mark was observed in 2017. Evidently, the facility was being used for manufacturing and testing large solid rocket motors. From the size of the test stands it can be deduced that the tested motors had a diameter of close to three meters and could weight more than 50 tons – twice as heavy as entire Safir space launcher. Significantly, the destroyed missile factory in Bid Ganeh was never rebuilt. It thus stands to reason that Shahrood is the new IRGC missile factory, relocated from the destroyed facility in the outskirts of Tehran to the remote desert site.

Yet the space launcher fired from Shahrood’s giant apron on April 23rd was not the anticipated mammoth rocket, but a militarized version of the much smaller, “civilian” Safir space launcher. Dubbed “Gahsed” by the IRGC, the new launcher is somewhat smaller than the “Safir” and shares its first stage, a stretched “Shahb 3” missile. The rest of the launcher is significantly different. It is of a smaller diameter and is likely to consist of two small solid propellant motors rather than a single liquid propellant motor. In February 2020 Iran’s defense industries unveiled an advanced, state-of-the-art solid propellant rocket motor optimized for space launching, together with convincing evidence that it had completed its development cycle. Hence, it stands to reason that this advanced rocket motor served as the second stage of the “Gahsed”.  The identity of the third stage is not clear at this time. Still, the new upper stages are not powerful enough to enhance the performance of the military “Gahsed” beyond that of the older “Safir” – if anything it is the other way around. While the “Safir” has a capability to bring about 50 kg. to low earth orbit, the “Gahsed” capability must be even less than that, considering that some of the satellite weight has been traded off for a third stage motor. Such small satellites at low earth orbit have at best a limited use for military purposes.

The real distinction between the military “Gahsed” and the allegedly civilian “Safir” is not in the stage configuration but how they are launched. Both are transported by and launched from a mobile TEL (Transporter, Erector, Launcher) vehicle which is essentially a stretched version of the “Shahab 3” launch vehicle. However, the “Safir” needs a support tower to prepare it for take off. In the Semnan test range, from which it is invariably launched, there is a cleverly designed launch tower anchored at the center of apron. Once the rocket is ready to launch, the pivoted tower reclines out of he way. Launch preparation could take days, with fleets of service vehicles parked on the apron to check and fuel the rocket. This protracted activity advertises forthcoming space-launch days if not weeks ahead of time, attracting the attention of intelligence services and world media and sending scores of satellites to snap overhead photographs before and after the launch. Failures cannot be hidden: Once the brightly painted apron in Semnan shows scorch marks it means that a rocket was fired. If no announcement follows, it means that the launch has failed. Even more humiliatingly, in late August 2019 the lurking satellites zooming above the Semnan launch pad saw the evidence of a fresh explosion, with smoke still rising from the debris. This compelled the Iranians to eat humble pie and concede a catastrophic failure on the launch pad.

In contrast, the recent “Gahsed” was launched directly from the mobile launcher, without a launch preparation tower and apparently with no flotilla of support vehicles. It stands to reason that the fully fueled and assembled rocket and satellite complex was brought overnight from a remote assembly building, checked in the early morning hours and quickly launched. This does not mean that Western intelligence services were unaware of the forthcoming launch. One US official commented that the launch vehicle “traveled a long way” to the Shahrood launch pad, hinting that the US had been tracking the preparations. However, the condensed- preparation cycle denied the world media its customary advance notice of the flight. More ominously, the new launch procedure shows that the IRGC will be now able to prepare its satellite launchers inside its own underground “missile cities”, drive them to any roughly prepared patch of ground, launch them quickly to space and promptly retreat to cover. The IRGC, it seems, aims to make its military satellite launchers as impervious to preemption as its ballistic missiles.

The IRGC did not release any details on the “Noor 1” satellite. However, a huge logo painted on the side of the “Gahsed” launcher shows a satellite overflying a map of the Middle East. The logo features a compact mini satellite with small solar panels, sailing high above the western Middle East. A “beam” issuing from the satellite is focused precisely on Israel. This logo – and the fact that the IRGC released it for publication – is practically an official statement that the Noor 1 has a photographic mission. The miniaturization of optical cameras in the last decade (think about the camera in your smartphone) makes it feasible to mount one or even several tiny cameras on a small sized satellite such as the Noor 1. If so, its resolution will be poorer than commercially available photographs from space, such as those used by Google Earth. Yet the propaganda value of an Iranian space photograph of an Israeli state symbols such as the Knesset or the Dimona nuclear reactor will surely be significant. According to the Israeli intelligence blog IntellitTimes, the IRGC plans to launch a similar satellite, the “Noor 2” soon. Subsequently, a larger and more capable “Noor 3″ is planned.

The launching a satellite at a time when Iran is struggling with the corona virus epidemic (it is the 8th most severely hit country in the world) is by itself a declaration of defiance and perseverance. It stands to reason that the message is mainly directed at Iran’s home audience, driving the message that in the matters of national security, it is business as usual for Iran. The “Gahsed” space launcher is largely a new design, and the “Noor 1” satellite is an entirely new design. It stands to reason that developing and ground testing them took years. It follows that the date of their first flight had been scheduled months or even years ago and that the coincidence of this launch with the coranavirus crisis is but incidental.

Yet the fact that Ali Khamenai, Iran’s Supreme Leader authorized the flight at this trying time – is significant. Even more significant is the IRGC’s emergence as military space program agent with its own private missile development center in Shahrood. This is an indication of the growing clout of the IRGC within the Islamic Republic’s power structure, heralding a further hardening of its policy and the waning of influence of more moderate forces. Now that the IRGC leadership in Iran’s space effort is out in the open, it can be expected that its homemade, global range rockets will be seen on the Shahrood giant launch pad in the not-too-distant future.


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


Photo: Freepik

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