Russia to launch spy satellite for Iran, but use it over Ukraine first
Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has announced an August 9 launch date for the satellite, dubbed “Khayyam” after a 12th-century Persian mathematician, in fulfillment of a nearly four-year deal negotiated with Iran. Russia has agreed to build and launch the Kanopus-V system, which will include a high-resolution camera that would give Tehran unprecedented capabilities, including near-continuous surveillance of sensitive facilities in Israel and the Persian Gulf.
But Iran may not be able to take control of the satellite right away. Russia, which struggled to achieve its military objectives during its five-month assault on Ukraine, told Tehran it planned to use the satellite for several months or more to boost its surveillance of military targets in this conflict, the two officials said on condition of anonymity, citing sensitivities surrounding intelligence gathering.
The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The Biden administration has closely followed Iran’s satellite efforts, which have progressed alongside Iran’s development of a more capable missile fleet. Administration officials declined to comment on the impending Russian launch or Moscow’s reported intentions to use the satellite as part of its ongoing battlefield surveillance in Ukraine.
Iran nuclear talks resume in last-ditch effort to seal deal
The developments come as talks resume in the Austrian capital in what some officials describe as a last-ditch effort to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration is pressing Iran to return to compliance with the accord, which Tehran essentially gave up after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The imminent launch is the latest indicator of increased military and political cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. His announcement comes two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran for meetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who later hailed his government’s “long-term cooperation” with Moscow.
Last month, US officials revealed that Iran had offered to supply its high-end surveillance drones to Russia to help in its war in Ukraine. Moscow faces intense economic pressure due to international sanctions and boycotts on sensitive military technology.
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The Khayyam satellite will be launched by a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan. A Roscosmos statement confirmed that Tuesday’s launch would place “remote sensing equipment into orbit at the request of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Last year, the Washington Post reported Russia’s deal, brokered in secret with officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to build and launch a remote-sensing satellite that would give Iran broad surveillance capabilities for military and civilian purposes. The spacecraft’s camera has a resolution of 1.2 meters, Western security officials said. This is well below the quality achieved by US spy satellites or commercial high-end satellite imagery providers, but a substantial improvement over Iran’s current capabilities.
The potentially biggest benefit, officials say, will be Iran’s ability to “task” the new satellite to conduct continuous surveillance at sites of its choosing, including military installations in Israel, oil refineries and other vital infrastructure in neighboring Gulf States.
Iran’s own attempts to launch a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit were frustrated; while successfully launching a military satellite dubbed Noor-1 into space in 2020, the spacecraft ran into technical problems and was derided by the The Pentagon as a “free-falling webcam”. In June, Iran announced the second successful launch of a new rocket, called Zuljanah, which it says is designed to put future satellites into orbit.
The prospect of an upgraded Iranian satellite has heightened concerns among Iran’s neighbors and adversaries, as well as among military and intelligence officials in the United States. In addition to conducting military surveillance for its own purposes, experts say Iran may be sharing the footage with pro-Iranian militias across the region. These include Houthi rebels fighting Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. Pro-Iranian militias have been linked to repeated rocket and drone attacks on Iraqi military bases that host US troops and military trainers.
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Iran has long been under continuous surveillance by high-resolution US and Israeli satellite cameras.
“This is obviously a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies in the Middle East and abroad,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior Iranian analyst at the United States National Security Council. administration and now a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “As Iran hones its missile arsenal – short, medium and long range missiles, alongside its growing drone capability throughout the Middle East – being able to synchronize those capabilities with satellite capabilities and surveillance will not will only increase the lethality of the Iranian threat.”