Iranian state media outlets reported that a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Aerospace Force was killed during a “mission” this week, marking the latest incident in a series of mysterious deaths among IRGC officials in the country. The IRGC Aerospace Force is the strategic arm responsible for air defense in tandem with Iran’s regular military. Although officials within Iran’s national space agency consistently claim their outer space intentions are peaceful, military analysts and industry experts believe otherwise. As tensions between the U.S. and the regime have escalated in recent years, Iran has prioritized the growth of its space program in addition to its nuclear and missile capabilities. Since the regime is inching toward its nuclear breakout time, U.S. officials are wary that Iran’s space efforts will evolve to advance its ballistic missile program.
History of Iran’s space program
While Iran’s space efforts really skyrocketed in the late 1990’s, the country first dabbled in the outer space area when it created the ad hoc Committee for International Cooperation in Space at the United Nations along with over a dozen other nations in 1957. One decade later, Tehran also signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – which the country has yet to ratify. After signing a 1998 agreement with Beijing and Moscow to construct and launch an Earth observation satellite dubbed “Mesbah,” the Iranian regime first indicated its intention to build rockets capable of launching satellites into orbit. Around this time, the regime established a Supreme Space Council tasked with monitoring the country’s space programs. By 2005, the IRGC-affiliated Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization (SSJO) launched Iran’s satellite and inter-continental missile technology. The Iranian Sina-1 satellite was launched from the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia as a joint project between the Kremlin and the regime. Over the next decade, Iran would launch domestically-made rockets, dummy satellites, and actual satellites into space.
Dissecting Iran’s dual space programs
While Iran’s semi-civilian program run by the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) has genuine scientific and military goals in space, the IRGC’s increasing role in the country’s space-related operations is concerning. Iran’s state space program is overseen by the president, who is also the chair of the Supreme Space Council which monitors the Iranian Space Agency. The IRGC’s space program is a whole other venture. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the IRGC evolved as a counter, in part, to the state-run military. Similar to the rest of the guard corps, the IRGC aerospace program reports directly to the Ayatollah and not the president. Although the ISA and IRGC space program are separate entities, the two organizations do collaborate at times. As explained by War on the Rocks, “These two programs mostly compete, for example in their efforts to develop space launch vehicles, but they also collaborate. Over time, the balance between competition and collaboration has shifted back and forth. The presence of the Aerospace Force commander — who oversees the Revolutionary Guard’s space efforts — at the recent meeting of the Supreme Space Council is one sign that the balance may be shifting in the direction of greater collaboration.”
The IRGC makes its first (successful) launch
For decades, the ISA had been responsible for carrying out every space-launch in Iran. However, in 2020 this changed when the Noor-1 (“light”) military satellite took to the skies, carried by its own Qased three-stage space launch vehicle (SLV). For the first time, the IRGC carried out a satellite launch. The launch of Noor-1 was also pivotal since it displayed a solid-fuel capability that could make Iran’s ballistic missile designs more advanced and lethal overtime.
Last month, Moscow launched an Iranian satellite into orbit from Kazakhstan after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pledged to collaborate. The “Khayyam” satellite greatly alarms the U.S. considering the dual-use applications the spacecraft provides both rogue states. The satellite’s technology would allow the regime and the Kremlin to monitor its borders and potentially spy on its neighbors. Considering Iran’s escalatory behavior in the region in recent months and the Kremlin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, this use is more than probable.
The uptick in Iran’s satellite launches and the regime’s general focus on expanding its ballistic missile arsenal suggest that Tehran is aiming to build a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Once Iran obtains ICBM capabilities, it could use these missiles to carry nuclear warheads. Tehran’s elevated efforts in its space program do not bode well for the U.S. or its other adversaries.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.