The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Iran’s space program is more than a by-product of its missile program. It is central to the Islamic Republic’s quest for regional hegemony and global power.

The Islamic Republic’s Strategic Concept

Compared to the attention paid worldwide to Iran’s missile program, Iran’s space programs attract scant notice. Occasionally, Western leaders protest weakly against an Iranian space launch, arguing that the 2015 JCPOA (i.e., the “nuclear deal” between the P5+1 and Iran) forbids Iran from developing, manufacturing, and launching long range missiles, space launchers included. Iran invariably replies that its space launches do not violate the JCPOA.

Alas, Iran’s interpretation of the nuclear agreement is accurate. The drafters of the agreement intentionally obfuscated the language relating to Iran’s missile obligations to the point where Iran is basically free to do as it pleases in this regard.

The West tends to regard Iran’s space program as a minor appendix of its missile program, itself viewed by the West as far less significant than the Ayatollahs’ military nuclear program. But this trivialization of Iran’s space ambitions dangerously misses its true essence. Iran’s space program is one on the cornerstones upon which the entire edifice of Iran’s strategic concept is built.

Iran aspires to leverage itself from a regional power to a regional hegemon, thence a leader of the Islamic World, and ultimately to a global power on par with Russia and China. A precondition for achieving global power are the ultimate status symbols: nuclear ICBMS backed by space-based early warning satellites to ensure a credible second-strike capability.

Whether Iran ever will achieve global superpower stature is far from certain. But the Islamic regime is patiently and persistently pursuing the building blocks for such a posture. Iran’s space program is one of the more significant building blocks in its overall scheme for global dominance.

Iran’s “Civilian” Space Program: Achievements and Setbacks

It stands to reason that the founders of Iran’s missile industries had a space program in mind when the missile industry was established towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Statements to this effect were made concurrently with the unveiling of the first successful “Shahab 3” missile test in July 1998. Among the numerous enthusiastic statements made by Iranian officials on the occasion were the calls to develop a space launcher based on the newly proven missile. This is not surprising. All the early space launches of the US, the USSR and China were made by suitably adapted military ballistic missiles.

Two months later, in an exhibition of Iran’s military industry achievements, a model of a space launcher dubbed “IRIS” was displayed, together with a model of an unnamed satellite. The design was clearly based on the recently tested Shahab 3 propulsive stage on top of which sat a small second stage. Calculations based on the model’s dimensions and Shahab 3 capabilities indicated that the IRIS could put in orbit only miniscule satellites, if at all. It was clear that, at that time, the IRIS was a declaration of intentions rather than capabilities.   

The first concrete step towards building space capabilities was the establishment of the Aerospace Research Institute by Iran’s Ministry of Science. The institute, staffed by aerospace engineering graduates, was tasked with designing and developing space launchers and satellites, among other products. Hardware production, however, was exclusively allocated to the Iran Aerospace Industries Organization, a subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Another organizational step on the road to space was the establishment in 2004 of Iran’s Space Agency (ISA), affiliated with Iran’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies and tasked with covering and supporting all activities in Iran concerning the peaceful applications of space science and technology. ISA, in turn, is guided by the Supreme Council of Space, chaired by the President of Iran. This organizational arrangement is obviously required to harmonize the space-related efforts between the three ministries involved: defense, science, and communications.

ISA’s defined tasks were threefold: First, to orbit Iranian-designed and manufactured satellites by indigenous space launch vehicles launched from Iranian space ports. Second, to conduct space biology research and development aimed at developing space life support systems for animals and humans in space. Third, to build the infrastructures for launching satellites, tracking them, and communicating with them. This included the construction of space launch centers with suitable launch pads as well as acquiring and positioning tracking stations within Iran.

On the face of it, ISA is a civilian agency with no affiliation to Iran’s defense establishment. But as is the case for other Iranian government agencies there is a lack of reliable information about its annual budgets. The scant information that is openly available indicates a budget of only tens of millions of dollars per annum – enough for only a diluted and modest program. Furthermore, it is hard to estimate the purchasing power of such a small budget.

In reality, the ISA program is much more vigorous and ambitious than might have been expected from its modest budget, meaning that its real budget is undoubtedly much larger and so is its purchasing power.

Over the years, ISA standing within Iran’s government has shifted several times. According to one unconfirmed report, President Rouhani abolished ISA in a secret 2015 decision, to ensure the success of the JCPOA negotiations with the US and its partners. If so, the decision has since been reversed, because ISA still exists.  

As already mentioned, ISA is a civilian organization affiliated to a civilian government ministry and tasked with leading peaceful R&D for the benefit of humanity. The space program benefits Iran by broadcasting an image of the Islamic Republic as a progressive state that embraces modern science and technology. It also enriches the technological human resources of the country by providing an opportunity for graduating scientists and engineers to gain invaluable experience in cutting-edge technological projects. But all these are merely collateral benefits. Iran’s space program is much more than a science project with economic side benefits.

A frank disclosure of the real mission of ISA was made in a 2014 television interview with General Majid Mussavi, deputy commander of the IRGC air and space force. He stated (in Persian) that “The real mission of (Iran’s) space program is technological advancement to circumvent the self-imposed limitation on missile range to 2000 km.” – a voluntary limitation declared by the Ayatollahs on at least three different occasions; clearly meant to alleviate European concerns about Iranian missile threats against the continent. (See Con Artists of Tehran, JISS policy paper, November 18, 2017).

Simply put, the IRGC views the “civilian” space program as a cover story for the pursuit of covert programs on global range missile technologies. Iran has a lively and overt regional missile program, which produced the well-known “Shahab” family of ballistic missiles and the somewhat less famous “Soumar” line of jet-propelled long-range cruise missiles. This program is in the limelight of Iran’s media. Each new missile variant is celebrated and heralded in Iran’s government and commercial news outlets. Iranian citizens are encouraged to see the missiles in Tehran’s military museum.

This overt program is the program on which the Ayatollahs self-imposed a range limitation of 2000 km. General Mussavi’s somewhat incautious statement makes it clear that from the IRGC point of view, the “civilian” space program is a covert extension of the overt ballistic missile program. Additional clues regarding the covert IRGC-owned long-range missile program have since surfaced.

The establishment of ISA evidently accelerated the tempo of Iran’s space advances. In February 2008, barely four years after being established, ISA unveiled a full-scale model of the “Safir” two-stage space launcher, based on a somewhat elongated Shahab 3 as a first stage, and a second stage based on North Korean technologies. Western analysts estimate its payload for earth orbit at about 50 kgs. Concurrently, ISA unveiled a space launch center in Semnan, southeast of Tehran, replete with a fully equipped launch pad. The launch procedures were explained and illustrated, as well: a mix of the launch procedures for ballistic missiles with the more elaborate procedures of satellite space launching. Later, ISA unveiled tracking and telemetry stations erected in several locations. In so doing, ISA exposed the outlines of an integrated and well-balanced program that included all the essentials for an indigenous satellite program.

The first attempt to reach space with the Safir space launch vehicle (SLV) probably took place in August 2008, but no satellite reached earth orbit. Most Western observers viewed this as a failure, but some think that this was just a general rehearsal, not a full space launch. Either way, just six months later (in February 2009) Iran succeeded in launching a satellite into earth orbit, thereby achieving the status of a “Space Faring Nation” – the ninth nation to do so. (A “space faring nation” is any nation capable of putting in orbit indigenous satellites by indigenous SLVs launched from its own territory). The Iranian regime celebrated this achievement with much pomp and ceremony, issuing a postage stamp and a new 5000 Rial banknote portraying the satellite in space. This early success was the first in a string of successes. Two years later (January 2011) there was another successful space launch with the Safir; followed by a third successful launch (February 2012). Seemingly, the ISA brought its program to a level of stability and reliability quite quickly.

However, the initial successes were followed by a string of failures. The precise number of subsequent failures is hard to pin down, since Iran was loath to admit failures until recently. The evidence of failed space launches was only circumstantial.

Launch preparations in the Semnan space center usually are easily discerned from space, due to the quickening pace of work and the increase in vehicular traffic. Such increase in activity draws the attention of intelligence agencies and commercial providers of space images, sending in a host of spy and reconnaissance satellites to monitor the site almost continuously. Generally, the clues that a launch has taken place are large scorch marks on the freshly painted circular launch pad. If ISA does not follow with an announcement of a new satellite in orbit, it is safe to assume that the launch has failed. This indirect evidence – scorch marks without an ISA announcement of success – indicated that in the following few years, Iran suffered three failures in a row.

The most spectacular failure occurred in October 2013, when images from space showed much more than scorch marks. Satellite imagery showed evidence of a huge explosion that destroyed much of the launch pad facilities including the Safir mobile transporter itself.  Remarkably, it took ISA only 18 months to recover from this disaster, and in February 2015 a Safir launcher successfully put in orbit an Iranian satellite. However, this was ISA’s last success, to date.

Nevertheless, ISA had a more ambitious program in store. As early as 2010, it unveiled a full-scale model of its second generation SLV, much larger and more capable than the older Safir. The new design, showing some affinity to the North Korean “Unhaa” SLV, seemed capable, in theory of lofting larger satellites weighing several hundred kilograms. The full scale model of the new SLV, dubbed “Simorgh,” was displayed in the backyard of the parliament building in Tehran; while inside the assembly hall, a static display of the rocket engines and sundry other components were exhibited, suitably decorated with garlands of flowers as befits a peaceful civilian program. Concurrently, ISA announced the construction of a new and ultra-modern launch pad for its giant SLV; grander and more elaborate than the rather Spartan launch pad of the Safir. The new installation was completed in 2015, and not long after, in April 2016, ISA released videos of a Simorgh launch. But no new satellite reached space. There is some evidence, however, that the April 2016 event was not the first Simorgh flight, and that a few months earlier an unannounced launch of this second generation SLV took place, also with no satellite in space resulting from the attempt.

The space program then went into a hiatus, but ISA returned to a vigorous launching program in 2019. The period between January 2019 and February 2020 could be regarded as a “year of maximum effort.” ISA fired off four SLVs from its two pads in Semnan. A Simorgh was launched in mid-January 2019; two Safirs were launched, in February and August 2019; and another Simorgh was launched in February 2020 – all without results. The failure of the August 2019 Safir launch was particularly spectacular. Several space images of the launch pad show evidence of a giant explosion, with thick black smoke intermingled with reddish fumes of rocket fuel billowing from the wreckage. Evidently, the explosion happened shortly before or at the very moment of rocket ignition. Overhead images of the devastation were so vivid and went so viral that the Iranians had to admit, for the first time, that they suffered a mishap during this space launch.

It is reasonable to assume that ISA will return, sooner or later, to its launch pads in Semnan. However, its record to date is controversial. On the one hand, ISA managed to reach space, thereby acquiring for Iran the status of a space faring nation. On the other hand, ISA failed to stabilize the program. Today, a decade and a half after its establishment and more than a decade since its first successful space launch, ISA’s record is not impressive. As noted above, the Iranian habit of not admitting failures make it difficult to pinpoint the total numbers of space launches to date. From all available evidence, it seems that the total is either 12 or 14 launches, mostly of the smaller Safir SLV. However, only four Iranian satellites were successfully put in orbit by ISA. The success rate is thus between 29% and 33%, which is a very modest rate of success for a 16-year-old program, at best.

As noted above, ISA is engaged in space biology R&D and has scored some achievements in this field. A series of unguided sounding rockets were developed and tested to altitudes of 130 km. Living organisms aboard those rockets were kept alive in space using indigenously developed life support systems, and successfully parachuted down to earth. The first attempt to send a monkey to space and bring it back alive occurred in 2012 but was not successful. Two subsequent attempts, the second one in 2013, succeeded in retrieving the test monkeys from the space in good health. This achievement brought in its wake a flood of optimistic statements by ISA officials, including the statement that the space biology program was a step towards a manned space mission scheduled in 2020 followed by a manned mission to the moon in 2025.

To counter the impression that ISA went a little overboard in its enthusiasm, Iran’s annual space exhibition in February 2015 displayed a full-scale space capsule with a dummy of a space-suited astronaut in it. To bolster the message, plaques showed a planned suborbital flight of this space capsule to an altitude of 150 km. aboard a modified Shahab 3 missile. However, what was missing was any hint on how this space capsule was going to reach earth orbit, presumably in 2020. This would require a much more powerful rocket than the Shahab 3. (The space capsule was about two meters wide, suggesting the minimum diameter of the intended space launcher. This could either be the Simorgh at 2.4 meters in diameter, or some other giant space launcher that could be in development in a secret laboratory somewhere in Iran.) 

According to one source, Iran cancelled its manned space program in 2017 because it couldn’t afford it any longer. This was denied by another source, claiming that the manned space program was still underway. In any case, there have been no new space biology tests since the last monkey launch in late 2013.

How civilian is Iran’s “civilian” space program? ISA is making extra efforts to endow its program with civilian features, mainly by using visual aids such as painting its space launchers in snow white and deep blue colors with a nod to the flag of the UN. At the same time, all the major unveilings of new launchers and installations are attended by President Rouhani and his minister of defense, himself a general in the IRGC. Conspicuous in their absence have been the ministers of science and communications as well as top officials of ISA. They feature only in suborbital launches of animals and in the annual space conference.

Another hint of the true role of the space program is the missile “avenue” featured in Tehran’s military museum. There, a row of missiles produced in Iran is proudly displayed in their vertical position, as if ready for launch. This impressive row of missiles features the Shahab 3 and its counterparts side by side with the two space launchers, Safir and Simorgh. The implication of this display of camouflaged military ballistic missiles with blue and white painted space launchers – needs no elaboration.

Iran’s Military Space Program Gears Up  

The first clues that a covert Iranian space program was running in parallel to the declared “civilian” space program surfaced in 2013. Satellite images revealed a giant concrete apron under construction in a desert area about 40 km. southeast of Shaharood, itself about 330 km. northeast of Tehran. The apron featured a huge exhaust evacuation trench and a large launching tower. The alignment of this complex was southeastern, perfect for launching missiles and space launchers towards the Indian Ocean. This unannounced Shaharood giant launch pad was built almost in parallel with the publicly declared giant Semnan launch pad for ISA’s new Simorgh SLV. This was the first clue that Iran had been advancing two space programs in parallel, one overt and “civilian” in Semnan, the other covert and military in Shaharood.

The only organization within Iran’s regime which has both the political clout and the financial resources to run a space program of its own is the IRGC. It was therefore suspected that the giant facility in Shaharood was a “black” IRGC program. In time, this suspicion was confirmed.

In November 2012, Tehran was shaken by a giant explosion at an IRGC facility in Bid Ghane, about 50 km. east of the city. Satellite images from “before” and “after” revealed a scene of utter destruction. Concurrently, Iran’s government announced the death of IRGC Brig. Gen. Hassan Moghadem as well as most of his senior aides –apparently killed in this explosion. Moghadem was the pioneer of Iran’s missile power and was lionized as the “father of Iran’s missiles” by media. Today, as a much admired “Shahid” (martyr), he continues to be featured in Iranian media with more and more details of his life and work being revealed.

Recent new material about him drew the attention of researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, CA. A photo of the late Moghadem featured a crate with the word “Shaharood” painted on it. Moreover, Moghadem’s family hinted that the program he had been leading at the time of his death was not terminated but is ongoing. The California researchers revisited satellite images from the mysterious facility near Shaharood. The examination revealed clear evidence of a large industrial facilities for developing and testing huge solid propellant rocket motors suitable for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Among other findings were large ground scorch marks, evidently from two tests of large solid propellant rocket motors in 2016 and 2017. The commander of the IRGC’s air and space force, General Ali Hadjizadeh, complained in 2017 that his government was holding back from the development of SLVs. Since ISA, with Iran’s government blessing was not holding back any of its own SLV programs, it stands to reason that Hadjiadeh was referring to a separate space program, not under ISA’s jurisdiction. In other words, he meant the still-secret IRGC space program.

A partial exposure of that secret program occurred at a February 2020 IRGC missile expo, where General Hadjizadeh (today one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s regime) unveiled a new solid propellant rocket motor, evidently intended for a second stage of yet-unrevealed missile or space launcher. The new rocket motor, dubbed “Salman,” is the latest word in solid propellant rocketry, on par with the best from industrialized countries. Significantly, the new motor displayed the logo of the IRGC, not that of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (which prior to this was the sole source of rocket motors in Iran). Also significant was the absence officials from Iran’s “civilian” space program. Two months later in April 2020, the IRGC launched its first military satellite from its own “Ghassed” SLV, based like the Safir on a Shahab 3 as a first stage, but overall a bit smaller than ISA’s Safir. Moreover, the new SLV took off not from Semnan, but from the mysterious gigantic launch pad in Shaharood. The speculation that the IRGC was advancing a parallel space program of its own was thereby confirmed. (For a description of the new IRGC SLV, see Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Goes to Space, JISS policy paper, April 29, 2020).

While the April 2020 space launch confirmed the existence of the hitherto secret space program, it did not yet expose the giant solid propellant rocket motors being developed in Shaharood. However, it stands to reason that one day, not too far in the future, those motors will to be unveiled on the Shaharood launch pad. But what is the purpose of those giant motors? And what shape will the missile they are intended for have? Norbert Brugge, a German Iran watcher, believes (based on cross checking information on Moghadem’s life and activities) that the program he had been engaged in and which caused his death in the 2011 industrial accident was a large two stage SLV powered by powerful solid propellant motors with a diameter of at least two meters, dubbed “Gaem.” The giant launch pad in launching towers in Shaharood were constructed for Gaem launching. Since Moghadem’s family maintains that the General’s life work is proceeding, it stands to reason that sooner or later the Gaem will be rolled out and presented to the world as a second generation military SLV, much as the giant “Simorgh” was touted as the second generation “civilian” SLV.   

What prevents Iran from unveiling the Gaem now? There is a probably political problem with a large solid propellant SLV. Most space launchers are powered by liquid propellants motors, which are more energetic. At the same time, most ICBMs are powered by solid propellants, which although less energetic, are more suitable for instant action. Since the giant rocket motors being developed in the Shaharood facility are solid propellant, it can be safely assumed that if and when Iran unveils an giant SLV powered by solid propellant rocket motors, this will be tantamount, in Western view, to the unveiling of an Iranian ICBM program. This in turn will be viewed as a threat on Europe and the US. At this stage, the Ayatollahs are not interested in antagonizing Europe or increasing the growing rift with the US. Iran also hopes that the forthcoming US presidential elections will bring about favorable changes in US policy towards Iran.

Impact of the Military Space Program on IRGC Stature within Iran

The very fact that the IRGC was authorized by Iran’s Supreme Ruler to reveal that it has been running a space program of its own, and that it has its own industries and R&D centers to be able to do so, is indicative of an upgrading in the IRGC’s stature within the regime. The IRGC’s air and space force has scored several noticeable successes, the most prominent being the devastating yet bloodless attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations in September 2019. While the IRGC was accumulating successes, ISA’s “year of maximum effort” reaped repeated failures. It can be assumed the IRGC’s high command lost patience and banged on the table of Ali Khamenai. The mysterious “holdbacks” on General Hadjizadeh’s space program vanished and the IRGC was authorized to bring into the open at least part of its “black” program. This moved the IRGC up in the pecking order within regime structures of the Islamic Republic.

Today, the IRGC is “a state within a state” in Iran, even more then the KGB had been in the Soviet Union. The IRGC’s ambition to grow in stature may hint that it aspires to graduate from being “a state within a state” to becoming “the state” itself.

Thus, it can be assumed that the IRGC will not be satisfied by a mere partial exposure of its full capabilities, and it will push the Supreme Leader to allow full exposure of its “black program,” including the rocket motor development center in Shaharood (which may be called the “Shahid Moghadem” facility) as well as the giant rocket motors being developed there. At the same time, it is likely that despite the IRGC’s smoldering anti-Western ideology it will make an effort to sugarcoat the pill by portraying the Gaem as an SLV; not as an ICBM. To this end, ISA could cooperate with the IRGC by installing its manned space capsule atop the missile and call it a “peaceful” SLV intended to orbit an Iranian astronaut.

The bottom line is this: Iran’s missile program is not an appendix of its nuclear program, but a crucial building block towards Iranian hegemony in the Middle East and revelation of its nuclear missile force. Likewise, the space program is not an appendix of the missile program, but a crucial building block of its own in establishing a global range nuclear missile force as befits a global power, which Iran clearly aspires to be. Iran’s space program merits constant and detailed scrutiny no less than the missile program does.