A new satellite that Russia is preparing to launch on Iran’s behalf next week will greatly enhance Tehran’s ability to spy on military targets across the Middle East – but first, Moscow intends to use the spacecraft to assist its own war effort in Ukraine, according to Western security officials familiar with the matter.
Russia’s Roscosmos space agency announced an Aug. 9 launch date for the satellite, dubbed “Khayyam” after a 12th-century Persian mathematician, in fulfillment of a deal negotiated with Iran over nearly four years. Russia 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 monitoring 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 has struggled to achieve its military objectives in its five-month-old assault on Ukraine, has told Tehran that it plans to use the satellite for several months, or longer, to enhance its surveillance of military targets in that conflict, the two officials said on the condition of anonymity, citing sensitivities surrounding intelligence-collection.
The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The Biden administration has been closely tracking Iran’s satellite efforts, which have been progressing in parallel with Iran’s development of a more capable missile fleet. Administration officials declined to comment on the pending Russian launch or on Moscow’s reported intentions to use the satellite as part of its ongoing battlefield surveillance in Ukraine.
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 accord. The Biden administration is pressing Iran to return to compliance with the deal, which Tehran essentially abandoned after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018.
The pending launch is the latest indicator of increased military and political cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. Its announcement comes two weeks after a visit to Tehran by Russian President Vladimir Putin for meetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who afterward hailed his government’s “long-term cooperation” with Moscow.
Last month, U.S. officials revealed that Iran had offered to supply its top-of-the-line surveillance drones to Russia to help with its war in Ukraine. Moscow faces intense economic strain because of international sanctions and boycotts on militarily sensitive technology.
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.”
The Washington Post last year reported Russia’s agreement, negotiated in secret with officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to build and launch a remote-sensing satellite that would give Iran broad capabilities to conduct surveillance for military and civilian purposes. The spacecraft’s camera has a resolution of 1.2 meters, the Western security officials said. That’s far short of the quality achieved by U.S. spy satellites or high-end commercial satellite imagery providers, but a substantial improvement over Iran’s current capabilities.
Potentially the most significant benefit, the officials said, will be Iran’s ability to “task” the new satellite to conduct continuous surveillance on locations of its choosing, including military facilities in Israel, oil refineries and other vital infrastructure in neighboring gulf states.
Iran’s own attempts to launch a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit have been met with disappointment; while it successfully launched a military satellite dubbed Noor-1 into space in 2020, the spacecraft experienced technical problems and was derided by the Pentagon as a “tumbling webcam.” In June, Iran announced the second successful launch of a new rocket, called Zuljanah, that it says is designed to put future satellites into orbit.
The prospect of an improved Iranian satellite has exacerbated anxieties 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 could share the imagery with pro-Iranian militia groups across the region. Those include the Houthi rebels battling 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 U.S. troops and military trainers.
Iran has long been under continuous surveillance by high-resolution U.S. 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 top Iran analyst in the Trump administration’s National Security Council and now a senior adviser for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “As Iran perfects its missile arsenal – from short, medium to longer-range missiles, alongside its growing UAV capability throughout the Middle East – being able to sync those capabilities with satellite capabilities and surveillance will only increase the lethality of the Iranian threat.”
(c) 2022, The Washington Post · Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima