Iran, imagery suggest preparation for satellite launch despite US criticism, past failures

Iran is apparently trying to launch a satellite into space despite a string of failures last year and U.S. concerns that the program is acting as a front for ballistic missile development.

Images taken from space Sunday appear to show an increase in activity at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province. The photos, which were annotated by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, show an apparent influx of cars and work activity at a launchpad, suggesting Iran might be repairing the damaged site.

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The activity depicted in the images has, in the past, signaled an impending launch.

A satellite image taken on Sunday shows a large number of vehicles and shipping contains at a building at Iran's Imam Khomeini Spaceport. (Planet Labs Inc. Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

A satellite image taken on Sunday shows a large number of vehicles and shipping contains at a building at Iran's Imam Khomeini Spaceport. (Planet Labs Inc. Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran's information and communications technology minister, also tweeted Monday that a site is being prepared for launching a satellite called Zafar. He earlier told state-run IRNA news agency that Iran is planning to launch six communication satellites into orbit this year with the aim of broadcasting messages.

While Iran has launched several short-lived satellites into orbit in the past – and sent a monkey into space in 2013 – the country has failed to achieve success in the past year.

A second satellite image taken Sunday shows a circular launchpad and apparent work activity to repair the site. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

A second satellite image taken Sunday shows a circular launchpad and apparent work activity to repair the site. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

The apparent preparations come after the two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites in January and February of last year. A third attempt in August ended after a launchpad rocket explosion.

The failure in August caught the attention of President Trump, who tweeted what appeared to be an image of the wreckage along with a message addressing suspicions of outside interference.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

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Iran has maintained its satellite launches and rocket tests are not for military purposes – having long said it does not seek nuclear weapons. But the U.S. has claimed such launches are related to advancing its ballistic missiles and defy a U.N. Security Council resolution to refrain from such activity.

“Such vehicles incorporate technologies that are virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles,” U.S. Secretary of State Mik Pompeo said in a statement following the launch failure in January. “Today’s launch furthers Iran’s ability to eventually build such a weapon.”

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Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have flared in the past month after Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, and a retaliatory strike by Iran on Iraqi bases housing American troops. Iran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian plane taking off from Tehran amid the tensions, killing all 176 people on board.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.