“We’re UNSTOPPABLE! We have more Upcoming Great Iranian Satellites!” That’s how Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, heralded his country’s latest – and unsuccessful – attempt to place a domestically-produced satellite, ironically dubbed the Zafar [Victory], into orbit.
Jahromi, who took to Twitter on February 9, just days before the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, was engaging in a tactic far older than the regime in Tehran. He was framing defeat as victory, an approach favored by authoritarians since time immemorial. Through a shrewd act of “whataboutism” on Twitter, Jahromi cited several failed American satellite launches in a bid to establish a technical parity between the US and Iran, as well as to insulate the regime from criticism over highly public failings in its space program since 2019.
Later, Jahromi went on to specify that the Zafar had fallen into the Indian Ocean after its Simorgh [Phoenix] satellite-launch vehicle (SLV) did not reach adequate speed.
The need for damage-control is simple. Around major government holidays, Iranian authorities rely on physical symbols of Iran’s “resistance” and “steadfastness” – its missile, nuclear, and military programs – to justify the sacrifices average Iranians are consistently asked to make. This is why the Zafar’s failure may very well add more tension to an already uneasy situation at home.
Since 2009, but much more systematically since late 2017, Iranian protesters have made the money the regime spends abroad on its revolutionary foreign policy a central tenant of their broader political criticism against the regime. Now, as Iran sinks greater sums of money into its space program (as a reminder, the Zafar reportedly cost two million Euros), Iranians may well begin to ask: why is this worth it and why now?
In an early bid to generate mass support for the launch and thereby offset this potential question, Iranian authorities created a website for citizens to send audio or video messages, no longer than a minute, which the Zafar could relay when in space. They dubbed the webpage, “Zafar + Me.” Similarly, Jahromi had also hyped the launch – which had already faced a delay – several times on social media, tying in national pride to the then-impending launch.
According to its webpage, the Zafar satellite weighed 113 kilograms, was designed to spend up to two years in orbit, and was built over the course of six years by the Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST). Reportedly, IUST was on a 2007 proliferation warning list by the German government, hinting at its potential role as an entity of end-user concern, or worse, a possible link to Iran’s nuclear program. Previous satellites were manufactured by the Iran Electronics Industries (IEI), a subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. IEI is on the US sanctions list with no expiration date, as well as on the European Union (EU) sanctions list until 2023, when per the 2015 nuclear deal, EU-wide penalties against it will terminate. The same phased US and EU sanctions apply to Aerospace Industries Organization whose logo is imprinted on the Simorgh SLV, which it produces.
This sanctions nexus is instructive for several reasons. As exhibited above, a similar constellation of government agencies and affiliates behind Iran’s nuclear and missile program have ties to Iran’s space program. But it’s also a measure of how Washington is treating these threats.
According to the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment by the US Director of National Intelligence, “Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV) – including on its Simorgh – shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.” A closer look at the Simorgh reveals that it is a two-stage, 85 ton liquid-fueled system that can reportedly place a 250 kilogram into low-earth orbit. The Simorgh is propelled by four Nodong-A engines, which are of North Korean origin. The Nodong-A was the basis for Iran’s first liquid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile called the Shahab-3. It was also Iran’s first “nuclear-capable” system.
The Treasury Department has previously exposed and sanctioned cooperation in the missile domain between Tehran and Pyongyang. The Simrogh is just another area where this technical cooperation is manifest.
Thus far however, the Simorgh has failed to put a satellite into low-earth orbit. But even failed flight-tests stand to teach Iran about engine functionality, missile staging, preparing a launch-environment, and more, all of which have military and not just civilian applications. While Iran would have to take many more steps, including worrying about re-entry, to move from an SLV to a full-fledged ICBM program, it, like India and North Korea, can use these steps as a cover to further learn and hedge while avoiding international pressure.
And to avoid domestic pressure in the interim, as news of the Zafar’s failure cascaded in the Western press, Iranian outlets were heralding a new ballistic missile that was tested. Dubbed the Ra’ad [Thunder]-500, it is an upgrade to Iran’s single-stage solid-propellant Fateh class of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), which have been used in military operations launched from Iranian territory at targets in the Middle East. The Ra’ad reportedly extends the range of the Fateh SRBM by using composite material rather than metal, thus reducing the weight of the missile body. But more importantly, hardline news agencies are talking about using the Ra’ad’s composite engine “to manufacture light satellite carriers with solid propellant,” which would be a historic first for the regime. This too, would be an indicator of a greater nexus between the space and military programs.
Both in the space/missile and nuclear domains, the Islamic Republic remains driven by two larger forces: status and security.Those same forces have led the regime to engage in illicit procurement, defy the international community, suffer sanctions, and even tolerate the erosion of cash from Iran’s coffers over time. In its dogged quest for both status and security, more than four decades later, the Islamic Republic has little to show for either. Iran may have the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the region, but this arsenal is actively uniting the region against it. And while Tehran covets the status of regional leader, to date, there is no regional actor voluntarily emulating the Iranian model.
Forty-one years on, there are sadly too many areas where defeat passes as victory in the Islamic Republic. The space program is just one.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) based in Washington DC.