Russia successfully launches Iranian spy satellite as concerns over Ukraine war loom

ALMATY, Kazakhstan – An Iranian satellite launched by Russia blasted off from Kazakhstan early Tuesday and entered orbit amid controversy that Moscow could use it to monitor military targets in Ukraine.

A live feed from Russian space agency Roscosmos showed the launch of the Soyuz-2.1b rocket carrying the Khayyam satellite from the Russian-controlled Baikonur Cosmodrome at the scheduled time of 0552 GMT.

Russian Mission Control confirmed its subsequent entry into orbit.

Iran, which has maintained ties with Moscow and refrained from criticizing the Ukraine invasion, has sought to dispel suspicions that Moscow could use Khayyam to spy on Ukraine.

Last week, US daily The Washington Post quoted unnamed Western intelligence officials as saying that Russia “plans to use satellites for several months or longer” to aid its war effort before allowing Iran to take control.

But Iran’s space agency said on Sunday that the Islamic Republic would control the Khayyam satellite “from day one”.

“No third country is able to access the information sent by the satellite due to its “encrypted algorithm,” it said.

Khayyam aims to “monitor country borders,” increase agricultural productivity and monitor water resources and natural disasters, the space agency said.

In a pre-launch statement Monday, the ISA praised the “high-reliability component of the Soyuz launcher.”

“Due to the weight of the Khayyam satellite exceeding half a ton and the extremely high success rate of the Soyuz launcher, the launch of the Khayyam satellite has been entrusted to Russia,” a statement on the space agency’s website said.

As Moscow’s international isolation grows under the weight of Western sanctions on Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to pivot Russia to the Middle East, Asia and Africa and find new customers for the country’s troubled space program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Iranian counterpart Ibrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran last month – one of the few foreign trips he has made since the invasion began.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greet each other as Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, right, stands in Tehran, Iran, on July 19, 2022. (Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader via AP)

‘Long Term Cooperation’

Khayyam, named after the 11th-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, would not be the first Iranian satellite launched by Russia. In 2005, Iran’s Sina-1 satellite was launched from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

Iran is currently negotiating with world powers, including Moscow, to save a 2015 deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The United States – which abandoned the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump – has accused Iran of effectively supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine while adopting a “veil of neutrality”.

During his meeting with Putin last month, Iran’s Khamenei called for “long-term cooperation” with Russia, and Tehran has refused to join international protests against Moscow’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.

Iran maintains that its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only and does not violate the 2015 nuclear deal or any other international agreement.

Western governments worry that the satellite launch systems include technology used in ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, which Iran has always denied it wants to build.

Iran successfully put its first military satellite into orbit in April 2020, prompting strong protests from the United States.

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