On Sunday, the United States “quietly” recognized Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard’s latest achievement—a successful satellite launch.
The launch of the Noor-3 satellite has raised concerns in Washington, as it resembles previous launches criticized for potentially aiding Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has remained conspicuously silent, refraining from commenting on Iran’s recent satellite launch to the media.
The Noor-3 satellite’s launch marked another triumph for the Revolutionary Guard’s space program, following a series of failures in Iran’s civilian space program in recent years.
The Noor-3 Satellite: A Technological Milestone
On September 27, according to AP News, space-track.org – a website that tracks space activities – released data confirming Iran’s launch of the Noor-3 satellite on Wednesday.
Iran's Qased satellite launch vehicle successfully launched the Noor 3 satellite today
● Two more satellites will be launched before the end of the Iranian Calendar (March 2024)
● IRGC will use this satellite to meet its intelligence needs
● Iran is now capable to launch… pic.twitter.com/ueem4PWpwe
— Iran Observer (@IranObserver0) September 27, 2023
The information, supplied by the 18th Space Defense Squadron of the US Space Force, placed the satellite at an altitude of over 450 kilometers (280 miles) above the Earth’s surface, in line with Iranian state media reports. The launch utilized a Qased rocket, a three-stage vehicle powered by both liquid and solid fuels, first unveiled by the Revolutionary Guard in 2020.
The term “Noor” translates to “light” in Farsi, while “Qased” means “messenger.”
A Closer Look at Shahroud Base
Notably, Iranian authorities released a video of the rocket’s launch from a mobile launcher, but the precise location remains undisclosed. However, details from the footage corresponded with a Guard base located near Shahroud, approximately 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of Tehran. This base operates in Semnan province, which is home to the Imam Khomeini Spaceport, responsible for Iran’s civilian space program.
The space-track.org website also confirmed that the missile was launched from the Shahroud base.
Enhanced Capabilities: General Ali Jafarabadi Discusses Noor-3
During a Thursday night interview with Iranian state television, Guard Space Commander General Ali Jafarabadi praised the Noor-3 satellite’s image accuracy.
He highlighted that the satellite boasted twice the image accuracy of its predecessor, the Noor-2, which was launched in March 2022. Noor-2 remains in orbit, while Noor-1, launched in 2020, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere last year.
The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Aerospace Force Space Division General Ali Jafarabadi said #Iran has the capacity to launch small satellites for neighboring countries into spacehttps://t.co/oSX6FSbEsI pic.twitter.com/VeZnV0CY1a
— Tasnim News Agency (@Tasnimnews_EN) September 28, 2023
Jafarabadi also revealed that Noor-3 is equipped with thrusters, enabling it to maneuver in orbit. He discussed Iran’s broader aspirations for its satellite program, including potential applications for drone control.
This development could raise further concerns for Western nations and Ukraine, given Iran’s history of supplying Iranian-made bomb-carrying drones to Russia.
Sanctions and Concerns: The Broader Implications
The Noor-3’s image-taking capabilities remain unclear, largely due to international sanctions restricting Iran’s access to commercially available satellite imagery.
As a result, Iran has focused on developing its own indigenous satellite technology. The head of the US Space Command previously dismissed Noor-1 as a “tumbling webcam in space,” offering little strategic value.
“Iran states it has imaging capabilities — actually, it’s a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel,” said General Jay Raymond in a tweet back in April 2020.
The United States has consistently condemned Iran’s satellite launches, citing a violation of a UN Security Council resolution and urging Tehran to refrain from activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
Sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program are set to expire on October 18.
Launching satellite Noor-3
Third indigenous IRGC satellite was launched into space by Qased three-stage hybrid satellite carrier and successfully placed in a 450 km orbit. AP reported that Washington acknowledges that Iran's satellite has been successfully placed in Earth orbit. pic.twitter.com/lYqb48De3q
— IRNA News Agency (@IrnaEnglish) October 1, 2023
The US intelligence community’s 2023 worldwide threat assessment has expressed concerns that the development of satellite launch vehicles could expedite Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as the technology involved overlaps.
The Geopolitical Landscape: Balancing Acts and Strategic Concerns
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller underscored the seriousness of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, describing them as a “significant nonproliferation concern.”
He emphasized the use of various nonproliferation tools, including sanctions, to counter Iran’s ballistic missile program and its potential to export missile technology.
Iran maintains that its space program, like its nuclear activities, is solely for civilian purposes and denies seeking nuclear weapons.
However, US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have reported that Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003. The involvement of the Revolutionary Guard in satellite launches, coupled with mobile launchers, has raised concerns in the West.
The Road Ahead: Strained Diplomacy and Nuclear Concerns
In the past decade, Iran made notable strides in its space program, including sending satellites into orbit and a monkey into space in 2013. However, it faced challenges with five consecutive failed launches in its Simorgh program.
Tragedy struck in February 2019 when a fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport claimed lives, and later that year, a rocket explosion drew attention when then-President Donald Trump tweeted a US surveillance photo of the incident.
Iran’s nuclear program has become a major point of contention between the country and Western nations, particularly since the US exited the 2015 nuclear agreement five years ago. Negotiations to revive the agreement have stagnated for over a year. The IAEA confirmed Iran’s significant enrichment of uranium, raising concerns about potential nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Iran’s construction of an underground nuclear facility adds to the complexity of the situation. While a recent prisoner swap involving a six-billion-dollar in frozen Iranian assets took place, prospects for broader diplomatic agreements with the US remain unclear.