Russia recently launched an Iranian satellite into orbit from its leased spaceport facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Iran confirmed that the satellite named Khayyam will be used for civilian purposes such as for agricultural programs and environmental monitoring. However, US officials expressed their concerns over the satellite being used for military purposes. Some reports indicate that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, informed Iran that Russia will maintain control over the satellite for several months or longer to assist the war effort in Ukraine but Tehran has rejected this claim. Iran-Russia space cooperation is one of the first results of the partnership agreements that were signed after the recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and reflects the growing strategic partnership between both countries.
Khayyam is a low earth orbit (LEO), remote-sensing satellite and it was launched using the Russian Soyuz-2.1b orbital launch vehicle. Earlier in March, the IRGC launched the Noor-2 satellite which is largely used for imaging missions and projects. The recently launched Khayyam satellite has a higher resolution than the Noor-2 satellite. The Iranian Space Agency revealed that the images are expected to come in a resolution of 1 meter and they will be used to boost Iran’s management and planning capacities including border monitoring. According to reports, Iran is aiming to develop its remote-sensing satellite capabilities to an image resolution of 5 meters to 10 meters. Khayyam was built and developed by Russia but commissioned by Iran. The satellite will orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers and weighs nearly 600 kilograms. As per the Iranian government, Tehran plans to commission three more versions of Khayyam. The Iranian government’s spokesman Ali Bahadori-Jahromi recently said that, “The construction of three other Khayyam satellites with the participation of Iranian scientists is on the government’s agenda.” Recently the Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force Amir Ali Hajizadeh praised Iran’s drone and missile capabilities, affirming that the country’s aerospace and military programs are interlinked.
The satellite’s launch comes amid increased tensions between Iran and the United States and ambiguity over the nature of the proposal extended by the EU to revive the nuclear deal, especially as Iran has rejected all demands concerning its ballistic missile program. The United States expressed its concerns over the recent launch as the satellite launch systems incorporate technologies that are interchangeable with ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Western powers have cautioned that Iran’s space program could also be a cover for developing advanced fuel and rocket systems and possibly larger missiles.
The growing space cooperation between Iran and Russia points toward three key developments. Firstly, Iran’s space program is likely to be critical for its national security and strategic interests in the coming years. As Iran’s space capabilities continue to grow, they will benefit its ballistic missile program, especially as the Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization manufactures rockets and launch vehicles to space not only for research but also for military purposes as well. Secondly, Iran and Russia view the growing space partnership as a new front to enhance their strategic cooperation. This partnership will enable both countries to explore and expand their aerospace and defense projects. For example, US intelligence sources have indicated that Russia recently sent its personnel for training on how to operate Iranian military drones before their deployment in the Ukrainian war theater. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently said that Russian military officials visited a drone base in Iran’s city of Kashan possibly for training and operational purposes. Thirdly, as Russia faces isolation, it has deepened its space cooperation with countries in the Middle East and Africa and its satellite launching capacity has been a key aspect of Moscow’s attempts to diversify its cooperation in order to project its numerous alliances and partnerships. Roscosmos is now looking to expand its market in the Middle East, especially amid concerns related to future cooperation with the EU and the United States. Russia has threatened to end its cooperation with the West in regard to the International Space Station if the sanctions are not lifted. Roscosmos CEO Yury Borisov recently said that the launch of the Khayyam satellite will enable Moscow to “expand the cooperation in manufacturing space equipment and providing services for countries of the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America.”