Administration Targets Iran’s Space Program, a ‘Cover’ for ICBM Development

By Patrick Goodenough | September 4, 2019 | 4:22am EDT
Shahab ballistic missiles on display in Tehran. Experts believe the Safir carrier rocket used to put satellites in orbit is partly based on the Shahab-3 missile. (Photo by Vahidreza Alai/AFP/Getty Images)

( – As France proposes offering Iran a multi-billion dollar credit arrangement for it to return to compliance with the nuclear deal, the Trump administration on Tuesday applied fresh pressure on the regime, targeting for sanctions a space program which it views as a cover for ballistic missile development.

The technology used to put a satellite into orbit replicates that used to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing the decision to sanction Iran’s civilian space agency for the first time.

He pointed to an incident last week in which a rocket exploded on the launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center – an accident during a test, according to the regime.

“Iran’s August 29 attempt to launch a space launch vehicle underscores the urgency of the threat,” Pompeo said. “These designations should serve as a warning to the international scientific community that collaborating with Iran’s space program could contribute to Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon delivery system.”

The designation of the Iran Space Agency and two research institutes (the Iran Space Research Center and the Astronautics Research Institute) took place under executive order 13382, which deals with support for weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

According to a State Department fact sheet, the launching of a space launch vehicle (SLV) or carrier rocket to take a payload into space allows the Iranians to gain experience necessary for developing ICBMs, “including staging, ignition of upper-stage engines, and control of a multiple-stage missile throughout flight.”

U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, the 2015 text that enshrined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, called on the Iranian regime not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The U.S. argues that Iran’s space program violates that resolution, in that its SLVs are based on ballistic missiles.

In February 2009, Iran first joined an exclusive club of nations with the ability to put a satellite into orbit. Since then it has sent several small satellites into space, mostly using variants of its liquid-fueled Safir rocket.

The first stage of the Safir rocket is based on Iran’s Shahab-3, a ballistic missile with a range that potentially threatens Israel, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. forces in the Gulf.

Early last month Iran announced plans to send a communications satellite into orbit, but last Thursday an SLV evidently exploded on the launchpad at its main space center in Semnan province.

On Friday, President Trump posted on his Twitter feed a photograph, presumably taken by a U.S. spy satellite, showing the aftermath of the explosion.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” he tweeted. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

Regime spokesman Ali Rabiee on Monday confirmed the explosion had taken place, attributing it to a technical malfunction during a test. He said no satellite had been on the launchpad at the time, and criticized Trump for his tweet.

Meanwhile the French government, attempting to salvage the JCPOA following Trump’s exit last year, is pursuing a proposal to offer Iran some $15 billion in credit lines if it returns to compliance with the deal.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will go along with the plan. Speaking alongside President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit last week, he acknowledged that the Iranians may need a short-term “letter of credit-type facility” or “some money to get them over a very rough patch.”

An Iranian Safir carrier rocket on the launchpad. (Photo by Vahidreza Alai/ AFP/Getty Images)

He added that any such arrangement would be “secured by oil” and would be repaid “very quickly.”

Macron, who hopes to bring Trump and President Hassan Rouhani together, said that persuading the Iranians to move in the right direction may require “economic compensation of some form,” such as lines of credit.

Trump made clear then that any envisaged new nuclear deal would have to include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile development. The regime quickly rejected that.

‘Pressing need’ to return to ballistic missile prohibitions

During the negotiations that produced the nuclear deal Iran insisted its missile program be off the table, and the Obama administration and its allies acceded.

Once the JCPOA was finalized, Security Council resolution 2231 considerably weakened missile provisions in earlier resolutions, seven of which fell away on the day 2231 was passed.

The most important of those earlier texts, resolution 1929 of 2010, declared that Iran “shall not” undertake ballistic missile-related activity. But resolution 2231 watered that down to Iran merely being “called upon” not to carry out such activity – a concession that drew some stinging criticism of the administration on Capitol Hill.

Iran has carried out numerous missile launches over the years since, and because of that diluted language claims each time not to be violating any binding U.N. requirement.

The State Department said Tuesday Iran’s missile activity underlines “the pressing need to return to the ballistic missile prohibitions contained in UNSCR 1929, which includes the legally-binding provision that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

“We have been clear with our fellow Security Council members about the importance of holding Iran accountable for its defiance of resolutions related to the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles – which includes returning to the standard in UNSCR 1929,” it added.


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