July 31, 2017 | Policy Brief

Making Sense of Iran’s Latest Satellite-Launch Vehicle Test

July 31, 2017 | Policy Brief

Making Sense of Iran’s Latest Satellite-Launch Vehicle Test

Late last week, Iran formally inaugurated the Imam Khomeini Space Launch Center by conducting the second test of its “Simorgh” rocket, a satellite-launch vehicle (SLV). This was Iran’s first SLV test in 2017 and the second overall test of the “Simorgh,” which is Persian for “phoenix.” Irrespective of the launch’s reported failure, more SLV tests should be expected in the future, as Tehran is likely using its space program and interest in satellites as a cover to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

For Tehran’s leaders, mastery of the sciences is a symbol of resistance against the West as well as a key to military strength. Tellingly, imprinted on the rocket’s body during its most recent launch was the slogan, “We can.” More importantly, SLV testing provides Iran’s missile program with technical dividends. According to a recent report by the U.S. Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM.” That same assessment stated that the Simorgh “could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies.”

The Simorgh is a two-stage liquid-propellant rocket reportedly 27 meters tall and weighing 85 tons. According to experts, the Simorgh SLV shares a similar, though not identical, engine design with North Korea’s three-stage Unha rocket. Other SLVs in Iran’s arsenal include the Safir (“ambassador”) and Kavoshgar (“researcher”), both of which draw on North Korean engines initially used to propel the Nodong-A medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).

Iranian outlets claim that the Simorgh can put a satellite weighing up to 250 kilograms into low-earth orbit, significantly more than previously reported weights for the rocket. While it remains unknown if the SLV was carrying a satellite during its July 2017 test, officials from U.S. Strategic Command told a Fox News correspondent they do not believe any new satellites have been placed into orbit.

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert indicated that the U.S. “would consider” the SLV test “a violation of UNSCR 2231,” the UNSC resolution codifying the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Accordingly, one day after the launch, the Treasury Department designated six Iranian entities pursuant to Executive Order 13382, which punishes proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and associated delivery systems. All six entities were subordinates of a defense firm initially sanctioned in 2005, Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG). SHIG has supported Iran’s ballistic missile program through production and procurement activities and is a subsidiary of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO). In turn, AIO is a subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense, and is responsible for the manufacture of the Simorgh SLV.

Over the past two decades, export controls and sanctions have held back Iran’s missile programs. Despite the considerable overlap between SLV and ICBM technologies, Tehran still needs to develop significantly more advanced propulsion systems, as well procure ablative material to shield any re-entry vehicles it produces.

To increase pressure on Tehran, Washington should couple the recent designations with sanctions on key sectors of Iran’s economy, such as metallurgy and petrochemicals, which play a critical role in its domestic missile supply chain. These tougher sanctions could also demonstrate to Iran the political and economic cost of flight-testing, which would have to continue if Iran were to pursue an effective ICBM capability.

Tehran cancelled an impending SLV test in early February 2017, apparently fearful of the potential U.S. response. Days earlier, the White House had put Iran “on notice” over a nuclear-capable MRBM test from January.

While the new administration’s change in rhetoric towards Tehran has yielded some fruit, Iran’s recent Simorgh test is proof that the regime continues to test America’s commitment to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons technology. For that reason, last week’s launch highlights the need for a comprehensive policy to contest the Islamic Republic’s provocations at every turn.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.