Why Middle East space geopolitics are back in the spotlight

8 min read
11 March, 2024

Iran has had growing success in recent years in placing satellites into orbit, with the most recent launch in February underlining increasing cooperation with Russia.

The United States, in particular, has criticised these launches, charging that they have an ulterior military purpose.

However, Iran is not the only country in the wider region with a space program or sophisticated satellites.

“Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran all have varying degrees of advanced satellites,” Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told The New Arab.

“Pro-Western countries generally don’t need satellites for commercial capabilities on their own; they can often utilise US ones for that,” Bohl said. “But for spy satellites and military communications, satellites are a key means for a country to develop independent communication lines and the ability to survey rivals from space,” he added.

“Iran is still relatively far behind on this front, but that’s part of why they’re launching more rockets into space to catch up with a more advanced satellite nation like Israel.”

"Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran all have varying degrees of advanced satellites"

External assistance

Russia launched the Iranian Pars 1 imaging satellite into orbit from its Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East on 29 February using a Soyuz rocket. The satellite has three cameras and is intended to scan Iran’s topography.

Russia previously launched Iran’s high-resolution imaging Khayyam satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in August 2022. While Iran stated the satellite wasn’t for military purposes, Western intelligence officials alleged Russia planned on using it to assist its war effort in Ukraine, a charge Iran denied.

“There has long been a growing military collaboration between Iran and Russia, which has reached a qualitatively higher level in recent years,” Arash Azizi, senior lecturer in history and political science at Clemson University and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions, told TNA.

“There are now significant sections of Iran’s military and political establishment devoted to working closely with Russia.”

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Nevertheless, Azizi noted that the satellite launches are not unprecedented, pointing out that the Khayyam launch came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran, his first trip abroad since launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“We should also remember that Russia is a major space power on a global scale, which means lots of countries collaborate with it in this regard,” he said.

Furthermore, Russia isn’t the only external power assisting Middle Eastern countries with space programs.

“Certainly, the US and Israel have a long history of space cooperation and intelligence sharing through satellites, and the US has put astronauts from countries like the UAE into orbit as part of budding space cooperation work,” Bohl said.

“China is also deepening its ties with the region through investment in space-related infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative.”

Iran satellite launch
Despite Israel and Iran having satellites in orbit, analysts doubt either of these adversaries will do anything to disrupt or interfere with each other's space operations. [Getty]

A Middle Eastern space race?

With more Middle Eastern countries developing space programs and launching satellites, a regional space race may seem inevitable, especially between rival regional powers.

“There is to an extent a ‘space race’ that is more about prestige than anything else, particularly for countries like the United Arab Emirates, which sees its space program as a way to develop high tech industries as part of its overall economic diversification program,” Bohl said.

“For that to work, it needs to be a credible, successful, and cutting-edge program. But the UAE isn’t going alone in this way: it’s working with the Israelis to land a craft on the moon later this year,” he added.

“I wouldn’t call it a space race in the way it was between the Soviets and Americans, but rather a race to develop technologies and unique capabilities that improve their economic outcomes and lean into their defence diversification programs.”

Despite Israel and Iran having satellites in orbit, Bohl highly doubts either of these adversaries will do anything to disrupt or interfere with each other’s space operations anytime soon.

"There is a race to develop technologies and unique capabilities that improve economic outcomes and lean into defence diversification programs"

“This seems very unlikely at the moment for the same reason we aren’t seeing US-Russian tensions manifest into the same behaviour,” the analyst said. “That is, to do so invites retaliation that is hard to stop and may end up causing major problems in space should it result in satellites being damaged or destroyed and causing debris fields.”

Iran successfully launched a monkey into space in 2013, saying the launch brought it “closer to sending a man into space”.

More recently, Turkey’s first astronaut, Alper Gezeravci, returned home from a three-week private mission to the International Space Station in February, where he received a hero’s welcome. Ankara also has plans to send a spacecraft to the moon as soon as 2026.

Bohl does not think Turkey’s space program aims to compete against its Iranian counterpart directly nor perceives it as a threat. 

“I tend to think that’s less the driver than Turkey’s desire for a space program to help serve its economic interests,” he said. “Iran and Turkey aren’t in a moment of rivalry that might see them deploy nuclear or long-range missile systems against one another, undercutting the idea that Turkey sees Iran’s space program as a strategic threat and vice versa.”

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Weaponisation fears

The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of using its space programs and satellite launches for military purposes.

Dr Benjamin L. Schmitt, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed to growing concerns around Russia’s “intention to weaponise the space domain”.

These include Moscow’s “prominent launch of a destructive direct ascent anti-satellite weapons test” in November 2021 and “recent headlines about the Kremlin’s potential work underway to develop an orbital nuclear EMP (electromagnetic pulse) device aimed at anti-satellite warfare,” Schmitt told TNA.

Russia’s February launch of the Pars 1 “only adds to the long list of malign activities that the Kremlin has been engaged in of late when it comes to the space sector,” Schmitt said.

Iran recently demonstrated its ability to place satellites into orbit independently, following a series of failed launches in recent years. In January, Tehran said it launched three satellites - two nanosatellites for global position and communication and a research satellite - into space using its locally produced Simorgh rocket.

The 'space race' between powers in the Middle East is more about prestige than anything else. [Getty]

US intelligence has warned that such a rocket has a dual-use purpose since it has technology similar to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The January launches were from the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s northern Semnan province and overseen by Iran’s governmental space program, which was cancelled in 2015 but relaunched in 2021.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary, which unveiled its hitherto secretive space program in 2020, put a Noor-3 imaging satellite into orbit using a three-stage Qased rocket in September. The IRGC has expressed its interest in using such satellites to control drones, giving them clear military use.

“Iran has long had a goal of building up a native arms industry, and its space program certainly is linked to that goal too,” Azizi said. “It would be naive for it not to attempt to use its space advances for ultimate military goals.”

The US charge that Iran’s satellite launch vehicles are an indirect pathway to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles echoes the one Washington has levelled against North Korea, which launched a spy satellite into orbit in November following two failed launches. South Korea believes Russia’s support made Pyongyang’s successful launch possible.

"Ultimately, the Moscow-Tehran joint [satellite] mission only heightens the realisation that these two Western-sanctioned actors are working to deepen their strategic and military-technical cooperation"

North Korea has claimed its satellite sent back “detailed” images of the Pentagon, the White House, and US aircraft carriers shortly after its launch.

“Iran’s satellite program is still not as advanced as North Korea’s, although it is interested in working with Pyongyang in this regard,” Azizi said.

Incidentally, Israel released images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s palace, a Syrian military base, and Damascus airport, taken by its Ofek 11 spy satellite in September 2018.

Aside from potentially aiding and abetting the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Iranian satellite program could enable Tehran to monitor its rivals in the region and far beyond. They could also assess damages afflicted by Iranian ballistic missile strikes. In January alone, Iranian missiles struck targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and Pakistan.

Iran likely sees the value in such capabilities. In the final year of the Iran-Iraq War, US-supplied satellite imagery helped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launch devastating counteroffensives against Iranian troops, tilting that bloody and depleting war decisively in Baghdad’s favour.

While the official purpose of the Pars 1 is to scan Iranian topography, the United States and other Western powers “likely have concerns that the polar-orbiting satellite could be used for intelligence purposes well beyond Iranian borders,” Schmitt said.

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And while the Pars 1 was deployed from a Russian Soyuz rocket, the launch will likely increase “earlier concerns” that Iranian-developed orbital launch vehicles “could help Iranian physicists and engineers better hone their abilities to develop longer-range ballistic missile technologies as the spectre of Tehran’s nuclear weapons programs continues to lurk in the background,” Schmitt said.

“Ultimately, the Moscow-Tehran joint mission only heightens the realisation that these two Western-sanctioned actors are working to deepen their strategic and military-technical cooperation,” he added.

This realisation has been “bolstered by simultaneous headlines” that Iran has supplied Russia with hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles for its war against Ukraine.

Consequently, Schmitt believes the US and its allies “across the democratic community” need to increase “the scope and enforcement of sanctions and technology controls regimes aimed at throttling Russian and Iranian capabilities to carry out destabilising activities.”

Schmitt warned that these activities “impact and threaten global stability not only on the ground but in low-Earth orbit and beyond”.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon