Iran ‘preparing new satellite launch’ despite US criticism

By Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

Iran appears to be preparing another satellite launch after twice failing this year to put one in orbit, despite US accusations that the Islamic Republic’s programme helps it develop ballistic missiles.

Satellite images show increased activity at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Semnan as heightened tensions persist between Washington and Tehran over its collapsing nuclear deal with world powers.

While Iran routinely only announces such launches after the fact, that activity coupled with an official saying a satellite would soon be handed over to the country’s Defence Ministry suggests the attempt will be soon.

“The Imam Khomeini space launch centre is usually quite empty,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

“Now we’ve seen pictures where you can see activities at this assembly centre and something happening at the (launch) pad.

“If you put both together it sounds very likely there’s something that’s going to happen.”

The satellite images of the space centre, taken on August 9, show activity at one facility there, Mr Hinz said. Another image of a launch pad shows water which has run off it and pooled, likely to be a sign of workers preparing the site for a launch, he said.

CNN first reported on the satellite images of the space centre, 150 miles south east of Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Iranian satellite launches had been anticipated before the end of the year.

In July, Iran’s information and communications technology minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told the Associated Press that Tehran planned three more launches this year, two for satellites that do remote-sensing work and another that handles communications.

The Nahid-1 is reportedly the telecommunication satellite, which authorities plan to have in orbit for two and a half months. Nahid in Farsi means Venus.

The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Mr Jahromi on August 13 as saying the Nahid-1 was ready to be delivered to Iran’s Defence Ministry, signalling a launch date was likely to be imminent. Iran’s National Week of Government, during which Tehran often inaugurates new projects, begins on August 24.

The launch of the Nahid-1 comes after two failed attempts at getting satellites into orbit in January and February. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in February killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.

The US alleges such launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests have no military component. Tehran also says they do not violate the UN resolution, as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.

The tests have taken on new importance to the US amid the approach to Tehran taken by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Tensions have been high between the countries since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions, including on Iran’s oil industry.

Iran has recently begun to break the accord itself while trying to push Europe to help it sell oil abroad.