Iran launched a new satellite rocket called “the Simorgh” on Tuesday, according to U.S. officials. The launch may yet again violate United Nations resolution 2231 – making it the fourth known violation since last summer’s nuclear deal. That resolution calls on Iran not to launch ballistic missiles or develop projectiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
The Simorgh launch been anticipated since February 2016. The head of Iran’s space agency told the media in March that the launch would have three phases: one test launch in spring, another between August and September, and then a full launch in February 2017, probably to coincide with anniversary of the 1979 Revolution.
Tehran’s civilian space program has long been suspected to be a cover for its inter-continental-ballistic-missile (ICBM) program – missiles with ranges in excess of 5,500 kilometers that can threaten Europe or even the United States if Iran achieves 10,000-kilometer ICBM capability. Space launch vehicle (SLV) technology of civilian programs is practically identical with ICBM technology. Tehran has masked the military origins of the program and then provides additional cover by making announcements that it will not develop ballistic missiles with ranges of over 2,000 kilometers. Senior U.S. officials estimate that the Islamic Republic may be able to deploy an operational ICBM by 2020, if the regime chooses to do so.
Iran’s cooperation with North Korea on rockets raises more red flags. The Simorgh, which has enough lift to carry a nuclear warhead, is based off of North Korea’s Unha rocket. The cooperation between Tehran and Pyongong on ballistic missiles is well-documented, and North Korea has also assisted Iran on its SLV program. U.S. intelligence officials say that North Korea has delivered two shipments of missile components, including large-diameter engines suitable for long-range missiles, to Iran since September 2015. North Korea also likely procured Iranian assistance in the successful testing of a solid-fuel engine rocket in March 2016, a step towards developing ICBMs.
For years, Iran's officials have insisted that its nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s December 2015 report confirmed long-standing suspicions of Iran’s nuclear weapons development. That report, released after Iran signed a nuclear deal with world powers last year, serves as a stark warning of the deal’s lacunae. This week’s ICBM launch only compounds the concern that Tehran is on a patient pathway towards acquiring the capabilities to deliver a nuclear weapon.
Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj.