Zuljanah, a satellite-carrying hybrid rocket consisting of two stages of solid fuel along with a supplementary liquid-fuel stage, took to space on January 4. The new satellite launch vehicle (SLV) is claimed to be capable of shooting a 220-kilogram payload of one or more satellites at a maximum altitude of 500-kilometers. Since no new satellite was aboard the SLV, Iran called it a test run. Besides its timing, Tehran’s decision to send the rocket into space manifests interesting technological aspects compared to its last successful satellite launch on April 22, 2020.
Unlike the Qassed SLV, Zuljanah was not launched from the transporter-erector launcher (TEL) but from the fixed-structure launch pad in Iran’s Semnan province, exhibiting Tehran’s confidence as well as showcasing its technological leap in comparison. Due to the two-stage solid-fuel rocket, the preparation time was short and kept prying foreign satellites from taking geospatial images, and averted any subversive attack from cyber or other domains.
Zuljanah’s three state engine thrust is claimed to be 74 kilotons, which is 16 kilotons less than the United States’ mainstay intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) LGM-30G Minuteman III. Iran’s space program has similarities with North Korea’s. The bilateral cooperation between the two countries reached a new peak in the year 2020, as per news reports quoting a confidential UN report. The news reports claimed that the UN report singled out Iran’s Shahid Haj Ali Movahed Research Center for receiving “support and assistance” for developing SLVs from North Korean missile specialists besides getting certain shipments. The degree and level of transfer of technological know-how and equipment have not been specified though. The independent panel that carried out the investigations leading to the UN report also noted Iran’s denial, and Tehran responded to these allegations by saying that a “preliminary review of the information provided to us by the panel indicates that false information and fabricated data may have been used in investigations and analyses of the panel.”
Prior to Qassed and Zuljanah, Iran had made 12 attempts and sent four satellites into orbit with the first successful launch in 2009. Iran has been experimenting with launching a liquid-fueled rocket as well as a hybrid (using both solid and liquid fuel) and a solid-fuel rocket. The IRGC launched a solid-fuel motor, large-diameter missile, Sejil, in 2008. However, its SLVs have been slimmer, posing technological challenges, such as their inability to carry larger engines to power the missile. Amongst others, China and Ukraine use liquid fuel to carry out space launches as with more efficient motors, a country does not necessarily need to use solid fuel. Iran’s development of solid-fueled rockets and missiles resulted from frustration at a time when the supreme leader had imposed a 2,000-kilometer range limit on the country’s projectiles. It was revealed only after his death that the late Brigadier General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, deputy commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force and president of the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization (SSJO), founded the IRGC missile force and led its development. His affiliation with the IRGC and SSJO clearly suggest that his intent was anything but the exploration of space for peaceful purposes. While Iran’s liquid-fuel program received public attention, Moghaddam worked silently on his more ambitious and strategic program.
After Moghaddam’s death, along with three dozen others, in 2011 during an explosion at the Bidganeh facility, Iran’s missile program went dormant for nearly five years, for both political and strategic reasons. Since May 2016, the Bidganeh facility’s testing range was revived and now it houses five different test stands for motors. Iran has worked overtime to access the chemicals and technology needed for solid propellants.
In 2017, IRGC Commander Hossein Salami and IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh revealed that the Salman rocket motor would run on solid fuel. The IRGC used carbon-fiber composites to reduce the motor’s weight besides equipping it with a flexible nozzle for thrust vectoring, vital for solid-fueled missiles and rockets. The flexible nozzle performs far better than aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for maneuvering. However, the IRGC did not use the thrust-vectoring Salman motor for Zuljanah but opted for jet vanes. Since it was a test launch, Iran experimented with merging the country’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) and SSJO resources. The two parallel programs have given Tehran technological and strategic flexibility. The motors that Moghaddam’s team manufactured were used in the upper stages besides solid propellant and other systems it developed. If it was not for political reasons i.e., talks with the White House regarding the disputed Iranian nuclear deal and missile program, Iran would be preparing to launch another SLV to carry one or more satellites into a lower orbit.
The other crucial question concerns the conversion of Zuljanah and Qassed-type SLVs into ICBMs. The obvious answer is no, the displayed technology falls short of ICBM capability. However, no one can deny that acquiring or developing solid propellants, engines, and control systems does provide vital knowledge for ICBMs. The crucial challenge in developing an ICBM is its survival, command, and control in and after the re-entry phase. Iran has neither displayed any technological capability to address this substantial engineering challenge of an ICBM re-entering the atmosphere nor has any intelligence agency or open-source platform claimed the existence of such a technological feat so far. It is plausible that Tehran possesses the know-how but restrains itself from revealing it now because of the obvious geopolitical repercussions. However, launching an ICBM towards an enemy without testing would be an unparalleled embarrassment for the Iranian political system and the IRGC as well as a recipe for disaster.