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NIAS Space Log
Iran's New Military Satellite: Does it violate the UNSC 2231?

  Harini Madhusudan

The military satellite launch does not directly violate the UNSC resolution 2231. The resolution states that it would not stop Iran from its growth, which places the space programme under technological advancements.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed the success of the launch of a military satellite, Noor on 22 April 2020. This comes after Iran's recent announcement of its new anti-ship missiles with 700km range and drones that can potentially be armed with anti-tank missiles with a 1500km range. 

What does the launch mean for Iran? Does the launch violate the UNSC 2231 resolution of 2015? What happens to the dynamics between the US- Iran now?

Iran's Military Satellite: Making a statement in the Space
For the IRGC, this is the second launch in the year 2020. The first one, a communications satellite, was launched and failed in February 2020. 

On the second launch, the US and Israel news reports have been suggesting that the launch had failed to reach the orbit. An alternate report says that the mission successfully launched the satellite into the orbit of 425 kilometres above the earth's surface. The mission was carried out in secrecy, and the officials did not release any advance notice of the launch, which has taken the world by surprise. 

Since 2017, four Iranian launches have failed to place a satellite in orbit. Iran however, has an advanced space program that has launched satellites in the past. This includes joint research projects with Russia, Thailand and China. Its first satellite was a domestically made satellite called Omid; it was placed in orbit from an Iran-made rocket in 2009. Subsequently, Iran in 2011, 2012 and 2015, has launched imaging satellites using Safir rockets. 

Iran's rocket program is made with a variety of ballistic missiles; together making it a successful space program. Iran faced at-least three failures trying to use a bigger Simorgh rocket, prominent being the August 2019 failure which Trump too, tweeted about. 

All of the previous launches were pursued by the Iranian Space Agency, a civilian agency. Both Simorgh and Safir rocket systems- which Iran has continuously relied on would not have been efficient if they were to be repurposed as a missile. 

Now, the military satellite
The 22 April 2020 launch was different in many ways. It carried out by the IRGC, who seems to be back in space development after laying dormant since 2011. The satellite was launched from the IRGC's Space base in Shahroud region, a new site but had been under US suspicions in the past. This base in the central desert of Iran was prepared years ago for heavier IRGC space launchers. The launch involved an entirely new system called the Qased SLV, which is a three stage solid and liquid hybrid-propellant system. Experts noted that the Qased looked a lot like the Safir-based first stage with the solid-fuelled motor Salman, that Iran had displayed in February 2020. Salman is known to have a better mechanism for thrust control. The launch was made using a mobile launcher, showing that the Qased could be set-up and launched much faster than the previous systems. 

The satellite that was launched was named Noor which is a small military craft, likely CubeSAT that could be used for imaging, officials from Iran have not released any information of the design or purpose of the satellite, the assumptions of it being relatively small come from the video that was released which show the size of the launcher being modest. The launch is the first military-based satellite launched by Iran to Space, however, it is believed that Iran is working on developing a military space program and more such launches can be expected. 

Does the launch violate the UNSC Resolution 2231?
The UNSC resolution 2231 endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the P5 plus 1. The resolution retained the sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program for eight years and the arms embargo for five years after implementation. The sanctions were primarily nuclear-related. The resolution also states that the IAEA undertakes necessary monitoring and verification systems to implement the deal. In May 2018, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and would reimpose sanctions on Iran's oil sector. Tensions between the US and Iran prevailed since then. 

In its affirmations on the official document, the resolution states that the IAEA must ensure safety, transparency and confidence are maintained and would "…avoid hampering the economic and technological development of Iran or international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities; respect health, safety, physical protection and other security provisions in force and the rights of individuals; and take every precaution to protect commercial, technological and industrial secrets as well as other confidential information coming to its knowledge,.." (UNSC res. 2231)

The military satellite launch however, does not directly violate the UNSC resolution 2231. The resolution states that it would not stop Iran from its growth, which places the space programme under technological advancements. Hence, the resolution 2231 does not put full limitations on Iran's missile program, and since there was no nuclear warhead involved in the satellite launch, it does not violate the terms of the agreement in legal sense. 

So, what is Iran's message?
Iran has made a political commitment to not go above the 2000km range capability, however, with the launch of the satellite could easily allow it to increase missile range up to 5000 kms. Iran subtly showed that it has the capability to build an ICBM and also can launch it from a mobile launcher. 

It seems like the purpose was two-fold. The first one - to launch the first military satellite and make a mark on the elite club of Space faring nations. And, the second one, the most important to show the ICBM capability without having to display the capability publicly. It could be seen as a provocation. After withdrawing from the nuclear deal, why does it matter to the US if the launch is in violation to the resolution? 

Harini Madhusudhan is a PhD Scholar at the NIAS Science Diplomacy Programme. She is working on Space for her PhD.

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