Iran's Space Launch

ICBM or Space Program Development?
January 22, 2019

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


David Schmerler


Foreign Policy Research Institute

On January 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Iran was preparing to launch multiple Space Launch Vehicles (SLV), which he claimed had “virtually (the) same technology as ICBMs,” before issuing a threat, “We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security.” Almost a week prior to that announcement, our team at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies was alerted to the same event by open-source researcher Fabian Hinz, who was seeing an uptick in prelaunch indicators leading up to the January 14 launch.

Starting in late December, we began monitoring the site with the help of San Francisco-based satellite imaging company Planet Labs. With daily images of the Imam Khomeini Space Launch Center (IKSLC), we were able to identify a variety of prelaunch signatures and activity at the launch vehicle checkout building, and at both launch pads prior to the launch of the Payam satellite aboard its Simorgh launcher. While the launch ultimately failed to insert the Payam satellite into orbit, questions as to the nature of this launch, the connection to Iran’s alleged secret desire to build an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking targets in the United States, and a country’s ambition to utilize space for advancing domestic scientific capabilities needs to be discussed as to prevent this most recent launch from being misconstrued and used to support false assertions about the linkage between a space launcher and an ICBM, which could then influence policymaking.

What Happened?

The CNS team identified visible pre-launch activity on January 4, with the arrival of a large trailer, used at past launches, at the launch vehicle checkout facility. While the size of the Payam satellite, and recent trends in Iran’s space program, indicated the likely use of their “newer” Simorgh SLV, we also identified activity at Iran’s older circular pad, used for launching the smaller two-stage Safir (Ambassador) SLV.

The initial pre-launch signatures, followed by a string of video releases by Iranian media displaying the Payam satellite running through its final inspections prior to moving to the IKSLC, made this attempt much more transparent compared to previous ones. Just two days prior to the launch itself, we were able to catch two images, on the same day, of the large trailer associated with space launch activity, moving from the checkout location to the larger launch pad for prelaunch activity and inspections. 


Read the full report at the Foreign Policy Research Institute