Iran’s Space Program and the Wall Between “Peaceful Purposes”
Zhanna Malekos Smith explores Iran's growing space ambitions.
On April 22, 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Trump administration, successfully launched its first military reconnaissance satellite, the Noor-1 (“Light-1”), 264 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The leader of Iran’s national space agency, Morteza Berari, claims that Iran’s use of outer space is peaceful. In contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo says Iran’s space program is “dangerous” and that the Noor-1 military satellite “makes clear what we have said all along: Iran’s space program is neither peaceful nor entirely civilian.” The United Kingdom, France and Germany also joined the United States in condemning Iran’s launch of Noor-1 for being inconsistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which placed restrictions on Iran’s development and acquisition of nuclear weapons technology.
What was unique about the Noor-1 satellite launch?
Unlike Iran’s previous two-stage satellite launches, the Noor-1 satellite launch vehicle was built from a three-stage rocket, the Qased (“Messenger”), using a more advanced engine and hybrid propellant system that uses a combination of liquid and solid fuel. Not only did the design of the IRGC’s launch vehicle include “technologies identical to, and interchangeable with, ballistic missiles, including longer-range systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles”, but it literally carried two messages to Washington – a photo of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020, and an inscribed Quranic verse “on overcoming adversaries and recited when going on a journey”.
Despite this, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran's Minister of Communications and Information avers “Iran’s space program is peaceful.”
What does it mean to use space for “peaceful purposes”?
First, it is important to recognize which legal regimes apply to space operations.
There are four space treaties that articulate the fundamental principles of space law: (1) the Outer Space Treaty of 1967; (2) the Rescue and Return Agreement of 1968; (3) the 1972 Liability Convention; and (4) the 1976 Registration Convention. Together, they affirm the applicability of the United Nations Charter and other international law to space activity. Not only do these treaties regulate military space actions, but also non-military, and classified activity in space.
Taking each in turn, the Outer Space Treaty represents the nucleus of space law. The treaty ensures all states have the right to the free use and exploration of space, promotes the understanding that space be used for peaceful purposes, and prohibits certain forms of military activity in outer space, (e.g., stationing “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in outer space), and forbids national claims of ownership of space and celestial bodies, like the moon. Next, the Rescue and Return Agreement recites that states are obligated to return rescued spacecraft personnel and “space objects that return to Earth outside the territory of the Launching State.” The Liability Convention holds states internationally liable to “pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects” to other states or foreign nationals. Lastly, the Registration Convention requires states to provide timely data to the United Nations on all objects launched into space. The UN maintains the publicly available Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space to help promote transparency and the peaceful use of space.
Curiously, the Outer Space Treaty does not define “peaceful purposes.” While Article IV of the treaty does prohibit certain weapons in space, the treaty itself “does not declare that space itself must be used for peaceful purposes[.]” Specifically, it prohibits nuclear weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) from being placed in orbit, in outer space, or on celestial bodies. However, this is a narrow prohibition because conventional weapons “may be orbited, installed or stationed in outer space”, and anti-satellite weapons “that are not WMDs are permitted by international law” according to the U.S. Air Force Operations and the Law. The manual further recites that because intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) temporarily travel across space based upon their trajectory path and are not placed “in orbit” per se under the Outer Space Treaty, ICBMs do not technically violate international law.
What does peaceful mean in space?
In general, it refers to being a “good steward of space.”
The preamble of the treaty recites that “the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” is in the common interest of humanity. It upholds the principle that the exploration and use of space be for the “benefit of all peoples” and expresses a commitment to international cooperation “in the scientific as well as the legal aspects of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes[.]”
The majority view held by states is that peaceful refers to “non-aggressive activities” like scientific research, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and transmitting navigation and communication signals. The U.S. 2010 National Space Policy elaborates that peaceful purposes “allows for space to be used for national and homeland security activities.” The Department of Defense’s new 2020 Defense Space Strategy emphasizes the need for cooperating with allies and partners to ensure space stability. This means “maintain[ing] persistent presence in space in order to: deter aggression in space; provide for safe transit in, to, and through space; uphold internationally accepted standards of responsible behavior as a good steward of space; and support U.S. leadership in space traffic management and the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
On the other hand, since 1966 a minority of states, like Japan, Austria, India, Mongolia, and Iran, have interpreted the Outer Space Treaty more narrowly by claiming that it demilitarizes space by requiring space be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. With regard to Iran, during the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space during the Subcommittee's Fifth Session in 1966, the Iranian delegate, Mr. Azimi, stated that the “draft treaty [of the Outer Space Treaty] should also stipulate that the exploration and use of outer space should serve only peaceful purposes.” (See A/AC.105/C/2/SR.66, page 7).
Despite the ambiguity enshrouding the term “peaceful purposes”, the Outer Space Treaty endures as customary international law. This is significant because customary international law carries a certain status of general acceptance and practice such that it becomes “binding on all states” to follow. Thus, of the 110 states-parties to the Outer Space Treaty, even signatory states that have not ratified it - like Iran - have a legal duty to not act in contravention of the treaty.
Next, let’s briefly look at the development of Iran’s space program
The Iranian Space Agency was established in 2003, and by 2009 Iran became the ninth country to successfully launch a satellite into orbit. Since its inception, Iran has launched four research satellites and two space rockets: the Safir (“Ambassador”) and the Simorgh (“Phoenix”). According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Safir rocket “can lift a satellite 350 km or 217 miles into orbit” and its design was based on a Shahab-3 missile, “which was made from technology provided by Russia.” In contrast, the Simorgh rocket “can lift a satellite 500 km or 310 miles into orbit” and was primarily domestically built. In 2013 Iran claimed to have sent a monkey into space and in January 2019 Tehran launched the Payam (“Message”) satellite using a Simorgh rocket, however, Payam failed to reach orbit in the third stage. In response, Washington announced Payam violated the 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2231 because Iran was engaging in activities connected with developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Several political news commentators on Iranian television, like Jason Unruhe, lambasted Washington’s concerns about Payam: “they’re going to demonize anybody who attempts to enter that same kind of realm [space] that they feel is their unquestioned domain[.]” To the contrary, after Iran’s Safir space launch vehicle (SLV) exploded on the Imam Khomeini Space Center’s launch pad in August 2019, U.S. President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One” and denied the United States’ involvement in the accident.
What about the relationship between Iran’s ballistic missile program and space program?
Historically, since Iran’s 1988 launch of the Shahab-1 (“Meteor-1”) missile from a ship in the Caspian Sea, the country has increasingly expanded its ballistic missile program. In 2000 the Central Intelligence Agency’s Director of the Nonproliferation Center, John A. Lauder, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “Iran has displayed a mock-up satellite and space launch vehicle (SLV), suggesting it plans to develop an SLV to deliver Iranian satellites to orbit. However, Iran could convert an SLV into a ballistic missile by developing a reentry vehicle.”
In 2015 Israel’s Eros-B satellite captured satellite imagery of a new Iranian “missile launch site, capable of sending a rocket into space or of firing an ICBM. On the launch pad was a new 27-meter long missile, never seen before.” More recently, on September 28, 2020 the Iran Daily news reported that the IRGC’s Aerospace Force had developed a new generation of naval ballistic missiles, the Zolfaqar Basir, which has a range of “over 700 kilometers [434 miles] and a warhead equipped with an optical seeker.” Previously, the IRGC’s other naval missiles, dubbed the ‘Persian Gulf’ and ‘Hormuz’, had a range of 186 miles and 155 miles respectively.
In addition, it is no secret that Iran and North Korea have long collaborated in developing ballistic missile technology. Russia has also lent assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile delivery systems. These relationships are concerning, warns Dr. Peter V. Pry, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission, because Iran could mimic “North Korea’s lead in short order—perhaps even concurrently—to mate EMP [electromagnetic pulse]-enhanced weapons to ballistic missiles or to include light-weight EMP weapons as satellite payloads.”
According to Iran’s 2010 military textbook, Passive Defense, as translated by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Intelligence University, Iran has assessed the value of EMP weapons: “As a result of not having the other destructive effects that nuclear weapons possess, among them the loss of human life, weapons derived from electromagnetic pulses [EMPs] have attracted attention with regard to their use in future wars …. The superficiality of secondary damage sustained, as well as the avoidance of human casualties, serves as a motivation to transform this technology into an advanced and useful weapon in modern warfare.”
Putting aside concerns of potential EMP threats, the Iranian Space Agency expects to develop five additional satellites before March 2021. Iran’s most recent launch of the Noor-1 military satellite and its domestically-built Qased rocket marked the IRGC’s 41st anniversary. Interestingly, this launch was developed and conducted in secret by the IRGC, not Iran’s national space agency, and launched from an IRGC base, not at the civilian Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Semnan province. According to IRGC chief commander General Hossein Salami, “Today, the world’s powerful armies do not have a comprehensive defense plan without being in space. Achieving this superior technology, which takes us into space and expands the realm of our abilities, is a strategic achievement[.]” Expanding the realm of operational abilities for Iran includes developing space situational awareness, scientific observations, as well as counterspace capabilities.
Looking to the Future: Developing International Space Security
The White House’s recent policy directive “Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems” (SPD-5), announced it “considers unfettered freedom to operate in space vital to advancing the security, economic prosperity, and scientific knowledge of the Nation.” In addition to advancing national space security, however, there is a burgeoning need to develop international space security as well.
With the creation of the U.S. Space Force, a new branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, a new DoD Defense Space Strategy, and the SPD-5, policymakers should harness this momentum to articulate the United States’ goals and priorities for an International Strategy for Space.
Why? Similar to the Obama administration’s efforts in creating an International Strategy for Cyberspace, Washington has the novel opportunity to design the agenda for partnering with other nations to build global consensus on responsible state behavior in outer space and promote international cooperation. Granted, as Benjamin Bahney points out in Foreign Affairs, “the image of space as a zone free from military competition is … fanciful[.]” On the other hand, by using the four core space treaties as a focal point for discussion, the United States can at least begin promoting norms on “peaceful purposes” to enhance international space security and stability. For example, pursuant to President Trump’s 2019 Executive Order on protecting critical infrastructure from the effects of EMPs, the United States could begin a dialogue with other spacefaring nations to prohibit satellite-equipped EMP weapons in space. Another area of collaboration, as recommended by Michael Markey, Jonathan Pearl, and Benjamin Bahney of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, involves equipping satellites with sensors to detect interference and developing a public “global monitoring network that would detect and record suspected interference events” with satellite operations in real-time.
By devising an international space strategy, perhaps we can begin to scale ‘the wall’ between using space for peaceful purposes.
Jessica 'Zhanna' Malekos Smith, J.D., is a Senior Associate (non-resident) with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s) and not that of CSIS, the U.S. Government, or Department of Defense.
This first appeared on CSIS and was reposted with the author's permission.