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Iran conducted a successful satellite launch on February 2, sending the Fajr satellite into orbit aboard the Safir rocket. The launch marks Iran’s fourth successful attempt to place a satellite into orbit, but the first since the Joint Plan of Action was signed in November 2013. The launch once again raised the contentious issue of whether Iran’s ballistic missile program is or should be part of Iran’s ongoing nuclear talks with the P5+1.
Iranian news outlets reported that the Fajr satellite, weighing 52 kg, was deployed to a 250 to 450 kilometer orbit. The two-stage Safir rocket is reported to be 22 meters long, with a diameter of 1.25 meters and a weight of 26 tons. This diameter would be able to accommodate a nuclear warhead, although the rocket has so far carried only satellites weighing between 15 and 52 kg.
This latest launch once again raises the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Safir rocket “can serve as a test-bed for long-range ballistic missile technologies,” according to a 2013 report on missile threats by U.S. military intelligence. There is little doubt that Iran’s space launch program is providing the country with the means to develop long-range missiles, including an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM).
Iranian Electronics Industries (IEI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics, designed and built the satellite and its related communications systems, while the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) developed the Safir launch vehicle. AIO is also a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defense and oversees Iran’s missile production. Both entities have been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union for their links to Iran’s nuclear and/or ballistic missile program. Following the launch, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Deqhan boasted that “sanctions haven’t stopped Iran's scientific growth; the youth of the Islamic Iran have built the Fajr satellite and sent it into the Earth's orbit successfully….”
According to Iranian news reports, Iran plans to launch three more satellites using a larger and more advanced launch vehicle. Between March 2015 and March 2016, the three satellites will be carried by the Simorgh, a two-stage space launch vehicle. According to Iran's space agency, the Simorgh can place a 100 kg satellite into 500 km orbit. The launcher is said to use a configuration similar to that of North Korea's Taepodong-2 ballistic missile. The 2013 U.S. military intelligence report warned that the Simorgh “could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies.”
In response to the launch, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki claimed that Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are indeed part of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi, however, insisted that “raising and negotiating the country's defensive and missile capability in Iran's nuclear talks with the Group 5+1 … has never been allowed in the past nor at present nor in future.”
Meanwhile, the European Union is set to close a loophole in its sanctions regime. The loophole has enabled a series of successful legal challenges to the E.U.’s asset freezes and travel bans against Iranian firms and individuals.
On January 22, the E.U.’s General Court struck down sanctions against Bank Tejarat, an Iranian bank blacklisted by the E.U. and the United States in 2012 for directly supporting the Iranian nuclear program and helping other Iranian banks evade sanctions. The court ruled that the E.U. failed to present evidence linking the bank to proliferation activities. The evidence, however, was confidential and under current court rules, all evidence must be shared with counsel representing the entities challenging sanctions. Consequently, many E.U. member-states have been reluctant to offer sensitive intelligence as evidence to the court.
The Bank Tejarat ruling is just the latest in a series. Over the past 2 years, the court has overturned a number of E.U. designations imposing sanctions against entities tied to the Iranian nuclear and missile programs. Perhaps the most notorious decision was the overturning in December 2014 of the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.
This loophole should be closed following an E.U. minister’s meeting on February 10.