Scientific observation device or military observation satellite? Welcoming a “historic” event and “the beginning of new cooperation in the space field between Iran and Russia”, the Iranian Minister of Telecommunications, Issa Zarepour, hailed in a lyrical tone the launch into orbit on Tuesday 9 August, of a Russian-designed satellite operated by the Iranian space agency.
Named “Khayyam”, in honor of the 12th century Persian scholar and poet Omar Khayyam, it was launched by a Soyuz rocket from the Russian cosmodrome of Baikonur, on the territory of Kazakhstan, according to images broadcast live by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
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The result of unprecedented cooperation between Moscow and Tehran, its launch did not fail to provoke a hostile reaction from Washington. “We are aware of reports that Russia launched a satellite with significant spy capabilities on behalf of Iran. The fact that Russia is strengthening an alliance with Iran is something that the whole world should consider as a serious threat,” said a State Department spokesperson.
In the eyes of the United States, Iran’s nascent space program is intended for military rather than commercial purposes, while Iran maintains that its aerospace activities are peaceful and in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution.
Resumption of negotiations
In June 2021, Vladimir Putin had already refuted American information claiming that Moscow was preparing to provide a sophisticated satellite to Iran to improve its espionage capabilities. “Fake news”, had swept the head of the Kremlin, interviewed by the American channel NBC. “I don’t have any information on this sort of thing. Those who talk about it may know more about it. But that’s nonsense,” he added. Without specifying whether he denied the very existence of an agreement between the two countries or whether he relativized the performance of the said satellite.
Whatever the Russian head of state wanted to say at the time, the existence of this Russian-Iranian remote sensing device has been known for several years, Moscow and Tehran having announced their intention to embark on this joint project in 2015.
At the beginning of 2021, Valeriy Laboutine, the Russian project manager of the “Khayyam” program, specified that the 650 kg satellite would have a linear resolution of 0.73 meters for a lifespan of five to seven years. If this image quality is far from reaching the standards of Western spy satellites, it multiplies by ten the capacities of the previous satellite manufactured and launched from Iran in 2021 and gives it an autonomous surveillance capacity.
The launch of Khayyam comes three weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran on July 19, where he met his counterpart Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 19. The latter had called for strengthening “long-term cooperation” with Russia.
The putting into orbit of the satellite also comes at a time when negotiations on the Iranian nuclear power bringing together Iran, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany have resumed in Vienna, after a blockage of several months, in order to save the agreement of 2015. European negotiators announced that they had put on the table, on Monday August 8, a text presented as an ultimate version of the draft agreement. Tehran reserves its response.