In late September 2023, Iran successfully launched an imaging satellite into orbit using a satellite launch vehicle (SLV). However, this launch did not demonstrate a significant advancement in Iran’s space-launch and satellite capabilities, nor did it enhance its military capabilities or those of its regional allies. Instead, it underscored the ongoing technological difficulties faced by Iran’s space program and its inability to independently place militarily useful satellites into orbit.
Iran initiated its space program around two decades ago, with the establishment of the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) in 2004. The country began adapting its ballistic missile technology for civilian space purposes. While some viewed this as a veiled effort to advance its ballistic missile program, a space-launch capability also offers potential military advantages, such as the ability to deploy imaging and communication satellites. By 2008, Iran embarked on suborbital tests of an SLV called Safir, using a first stage derived from the liquid-fuel Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile. In February 2009, Safir successfully launched Iran’s first satellite, Omid.
However, similar to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite during the Cold War, Iran’s Omid had limited practical value for civilian or military applications. Its small size reflected Iran’s constrained satellite design and manufacturing capacity. Furthermore, the Safir SLV’s two-stage configuration was unable to place larger or more useful payloads into low Earth orbit. The outdated liquid-fuel first stage, derived from the Soviet Scud ballistic missile from the 1960s, offered minimal room for performance improvement, making it a technological dead end. Consequently, Iran commenced development of the Simorgh, an SLV featuring a cluster of four liquid-fuel rocket engines based on the Shahab-3 for its first stage.
These endeavors highlight the challenges Iran faces in advancing its space program. The country must overcome technological limitations and develop more powerful SLVs to achieve its goals. While its recent satellite launch demonstrated some progress, Iran still has a long way to go in independently placing militarily viable satellites into orbit.