On 22 April 2020 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully launched a small satellite – the Noor-1 (Farsi for ‘Light’) – on a previously unseen satellite launch vehicle called the Qased. This past week SpaceWatch.Global has published a series of perspectives on the strategic, political, and geopolitical implications of the launch for Iran, the Middle East region, Europe, and the United States. Our final perspective comes courtesy of Dr. Mahsa Rouhi, Research Fellow in the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
What are the implications of the satellite launch for Iran‘s politics?
The satellite launch is the most recent example of Iran’s activities that are perceived as problematic by the US and its regional rivals. Nevertheless, it appears that the political significance of the launch is far greater than the military implications, which so far are still prospective.
The recent launch could have domestic, regional and international implications and signaling for Iran’s politics. First, it will probably be used to reinforce the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) grip on power in Iran and showcase the fruitfulness of self-reliance in contrast to the Rouhani Administration’s approach to reintegration into the international community. This highlights the growing political competition between the executive branch under Rouhani’s authority and the IRGC. Since the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) two years ago, the competition between the two entities has intensified. In the current climate, the IRGC is positioning itself to be viewed by the public as a powerful, effective institution that delivers even under difficult circumstances, in contrast to Rouhani who has not delivered what he promised it terms of sanctions relief, economic development, and normalization of relations with the international community. Additionally, the launch was aimed to signal to the West that the mounting pressure on Tehran not only would fail to deter it from what the West considers to be “problematic activities,” but rather it would push Iran to double down on advancing what it considers to be vital strategic interests.
Why do you think Iran, and the IRGC in particular, carried out the launch given the severe problems the country has experienced?
The IRGC’s decision to carry out this launch is not surprising when considering its long-term strategic objectives. On the domestic front, to consolidate its authority, the IRGC has made significant efforts through activities and propaganda to portray a nationalistic image of its activities and increase its public support. The IRGC’s success in the fight against ISIS helped boost its image as a strong defender of Iran. The US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 provoked a rally around the flag effect for the IRGC, the people of Iran, and Iran’s regional allies. However, the downing of Ukraine Air Flight 752 immediately cancelled out those sentiments, and the IRGC has found itself needing to repair its image. Because the military satellite launch demonstrates advanced technologies that otherwise only developed countries have access to, the IRGC leverages it as a vehicle to propagate the efficiency of its operations, positioning itself as the most dependable, credible institution domestically.
The satellite launch is particularly emblematic of this competition since the launch was the first conducted by the IRGC. All previous space launches to date have been undertaken by the civilian Iranian Space Agency (ISA). Because the launch was successful, while ISA’s most recent launches have failed, it provides another boost to the IRGC, reinforcing its claim to deliver on promises. Thus, the launch comes at a particularly opportune time for the IRGC, particularly as it seeks to consolidate public support, power, and influence.
Equally as important, the IRGC’s main objective was signaling to the US, the region, and the international community that neither sanctions nor global health pandemics, regardless of how debilitating they may seem, will deter Iran from pursuing its strategic objectives. The statement by Iran’s Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Bagheri, that the successful launch changes the balance of power in favor of Iran is an exaggeration. Yet that the launch underscores Iran’s position that Washington’s maximum pressure strategy is unsuccessful.
How do you see the launch impacting the politics of the JCPOA and Iranian relations with the US and European powers?
In the aftermath of the US JCPOA withdrawal, European powers have engaged in an attempt to save the deal but, thus far, have failed to deliver any meaningful relief for Tehran. Instead, the US has pursued a strategy of maximum pressure against Iran in an effort to force Iran to accept its list of demands or, at a minimum, deprive Iran of resources to pursue activities that are concerning to the US. Iran’s response to the growing pressure – a gamble stemming from a sense that it has little left to lose – has been to scale back on its own commitments to the JCPOA and to continue regional activities and its missile programme development. The timing of the launch when the country faces severe hardship conveys a message of strength to a range of audiences including the international powers, yet also demonstrates that Iran is on its own escalatory path to try to break the current stalemate.
Why do you think the IRGC has created its own Space Command?
Given that the IRGC has parallel military capabilities rivaling the regular army in every dimension, the creation of its own Space Command to expand its defense and technological capabilities is part of the same pattern. According to Iran’s IRGC Space Chief, Brigadier Jafarabadi, the launching of the Noor satellite is just one element of Space Command’s major project that has strategic value for Iran’s military doctrine. The space programme presumably would elevate Iran’s capabilities in surveillance, reconnaissance, and navigation, augment existing ground and naval military branches, and expand Iran’s reach into space. These are all prospective capabilities, still under development. Beyond these theoretical objectives, the Space Command could serve geopolitical goals as well, in particular reinforcing deterrence. Although the Noor satellite has done little to advance Iran’s capabilities for developing an ICBM, its lessons could be valuable for Iran and vital in developing long-range missiles.
The recent launch is also better understood in the context of the IRGC’s role in Iranian politics. In the last decade, the Corps has transformed itself into an ultra-governmental organization with an extended reach in Iran’s economy, domestic, and international politics. This means both independence from the executive branch and the power to interfere with its agenda and ultimately shape the government. While there are growing concerns in Iran that the country is accelerating towards becoming another North Korea, where military power is achieved with a high price from national prosperity, hardliners disregard these views and emphasize the importance of self-reliance in achieving national security.
In your opinion, how should countries respond, if at all, to the IRGC space programme?
Perhaps the biggest risk of the IRGC’s space programme is the potential for its satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) to be repurposed for use as long-range ballistic missiles. So long as they continue working with liquid fuel SLVs, the ability to repurpose them into an operational viable long range missiles is low. But if they switch to all solid-fuel SLVs, as they have suggested, then circumstances become more complex and threatening. Thus, the international community should attempt to develop a framework agreement on ballistic missiles that would allow Iran to continue its space programme for peaceful purposes, but simultaneously curb activities that could potentially lead to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Mahsa Rouhi is a Research Fellow in the Non-proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at the IISS. Her research primarily focuses on nuclear policy and security strategy in the Middle East, particularly Iran. Dr. Rouhi is also an associate of the Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She received her PhD from King’s College, University of Cambridge, UK. She received her B.A. in Economics from Shahid Beheshty University in Tehran, Iran, and her Master’s Degree in Political Theory from the University of Sheffield, UK.