Part 2: U.S. on Iran’s Space Program

For more than a decade, the United States has warned that Iran’s space program could be adapted to advance its ballistic missile program, with implications for the entire Middle East and beyond. As of 2022, Iran already had missiles with a 2,000-kilometer (or 1,200-mile) range. The Trump administration sanctioned aspects of Iran’s program, including its space agencies, research institutes and companies that provided materiel or fuel to Tehran.

DIA missile assessment
Defense Intelligence Agency estimates of missile ranges (2019)


The Islamic Republic has countered that its space program is only for civilian use and to develop satellites for independent communication. In 2016, U.S. intelligence estimated that Iran might use a ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear weapon, if it developed one. The following are comments from the State Department, Pentagon, U.S. intelligence community and Congressional Research Service.


State Department

In a statement on Dec. 30, 2021: Space launch vehicles “incorporate technologies that are virtually identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles, including longer-range systems.”

“The United States continues to use all its nonproliferation tools to prevent the further advancement of Iran’s missile programs and urges other countries to take steps to address Iran’s missile development activity.”


State Department Spokesperson Ned Price (2021-)


Ambassador Richard Mills, Deputy Representative to the United Nations (2020-2022)

Remarks from a U.N. Security Council briefing on June 30, 2022: “Iran also continues to carry out activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons in defiance of Annex B of Resolution 2231. Launches of space launch vehicles on December 30 and March 8 relied on technology virtually identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s determination to continue to engage in such activities is evident in its announcement on June 26 that it conducted a launch of its Zuljanah Space launch vehicle. Launches using such technology are the exact type of activity that the Security Council clearly called upon Iran not to undertake in Annex B of Resolution 2231. The Security Council must be clear and united in condemning this activity. When Iran defies the Security Council repeatedly – without consequence – it undermines the fundamental credibility of this Council.”


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2018-2021)

In a statement on April 25, 2020: “For years, Iran has claimed its space program is purely peaceful and civilian. The Trump Administration has never believed this fiction. This week’s launch of a military satellite by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, makes clear what we have said all along: Iran’s space program is neither peaceful nor entirely civilian.

“In February 2020, the head of Iran’s national space agency, Morteza Berari, said Iran advocates for the ‘peaceful use of outer space.’ He also said that ‘all our activities in the domain of outer space are transparent.’ Iran’s Minister for Information claimed this week that “Iran’s space program is peaceful.” The most recent military launch, which was developed and conducted in secret, proves that these statements were lies.

“This satellite launch vehicle and others launched before it incorporate technologies identical to, and interchangeable with, ballistic missiles, including longer-range systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles ICBMs). No country has ever pursued an ICBM capability except for the purpose of delivering nuclear weapons.”

In a statement on Sept. 3, 2019 announcing new sanctions on Iran: “Today, the Department of State designated the Iran Space Agency and two of its research institutes under Executive Order (E.O.) 13382 for engaging in proliferation-sensitive activities. This is the first time the United States is designating Iran’s civilian space agency for activities that advance its ballistic missile program.

“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs. Iran’s August 29 attempt to launch a space launch vehicle underscores the urgency of the threat. These designations should serve as a warning to the international scientific community that collaborating with Iran’s space program could contribute to Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon delivery system.”


U.S. Mission to the United Nations

In a statement on May 13, 2020: “Today the United States called for the Security Council to meet under its 2231 Format to discuss Iran’s April 22 satellite launch. The launch represents yet another example of Iran’s relentless defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls on the regime not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons – including launches using ballistic missile technology.

“This launch was carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a terrorist organization responsible for decades of violence and thousands of deaths throughout the Middle East. The IRGC’s leading role in Iran’s space program puts to rest Iran’s absurd claims that its space program is solely civilian in nature. It is not.”


State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert (2017-2019)

In response to an Iranian rocket test on July 27, 2017: “We would consider that [launch] a violation of UNSCR 2231. We consider that to be continued ballistic missile development. We believe that what happened overnight, in the early morning hours here in Washington, is inconsistent with the Security Council resolutions.”

“We consider this to be a provocative action, and a provocative action that undermines the security, the prosperity of those in the region and around the world as well.”


State Department Spokesperson Sean McCormack (2005-2009)

Press Briefing on Feb. 4, 2008: “Satellite [launch], yeah. I did look into it, and it is just another troubling development in that the kinds of technologies and capabilities that are needed in order to launch a space vehicle for orbit are the same kinds of capabilities and technologies that one would employ for long-range ballistic missiles. And of course, the U.N. Security Council and other members of the international system have expressed their deep concern about Iran's continuing development of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. The reason for that concern is tied to their continued development of - to continued search to perfect enrichment of uranium, which can, of course, be used in a nuclear weapon.

“So you know, we have talked oftentimes about the three parts that are needed for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. You know what our intelligence estimate has said about the active part about their military efforts to build a nuclear weapon, but there are two other parts to being able to successfully deliver a nuclear weapon. Part of that is a ballistic missile program, which they are continuing on with, their medium-range ballistic missile program, which they say can now reach a distance of 2,000 kilometers, can hit Europe. They're clearly marching ahead on the development of a long-range ballistic missile and, of course, you have the enrichment program which they are continuing to engage in.”


Pentagon Press Secretary/ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Geoff Morrell (2007-2011)

To reporters on Feb. 3, 2009: “Although this would appear just to be the launch of a satellite, their first, obviously there are dual-use capabilities in the technology here which could be applied toward the development of a long-range ballistic missile. And that is a cause of concern to us, and I think to certainly everybody in the region — Israel and their Arab neighbors — as well as to our allies in Europe.”


Defense Intelligence Agency

In a report released on April 12, 2022: “Iran’s pursuit of a national space program supports both its civilian and military goals, including boosting national pride, economic development, and military modernization. Tehran states it has developed sophisticated capabilities, including SLVs as well as communications and remote-sensing satellites; however, its SLVs are only able to launch small satellites into LEO and have proven unreliable.

“The Iranian Space Agency (ISA) and Iranian Space Research Center (ISRC)—subordinate to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology—along with the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) oversee part of the country’s satellite development programs. ISA and ISRC work with Iranian universities, private industry, and foreign partners to develop satellites to test communications and remote-sensing technologies. However, Iran’s limited space launch capacity has led to a significant backlog of built-but-unlaunched satellites.

“To ensure access to space-based ISR, Iran’s Project 505 is probably an attempt to buy an ISR system from Russia that started in August 2015; however, this system is not yet in orbit. A Russian aerospace company, NPK Barl, and the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics would provide the ground system and the satellite respectively which would be operated by the Iranian staterun trade company, Bonyan Danesh Shargh.

“MODAFL and the IRGC-ASF oversee Iran’s SLV development programs. MODAFL’s first launch attempt, the two-stage Safir SLV in 2008, was followed by four successful launches, numerous failures, and retirement in 2020.

“In 2016, MODAFL tested the larger liquid-fueled Simorgh SLV, and as of March 2020, MODAFL planned to use the Simorgh’s technologies to develop other larger more capable SLVs, including the Sarir and Soroush. Iran conducted launches of the IRGC-ASF–developed hybrid liquid- and solid-fueled Ghased SLV in 2020 and 2022. The IRGC-ASF subsequently announced its intent to continue SLV development,

including a future SLV with GEO launch capability. Iran has also revealed plans for a larger four-stage Ghaem SLV, which could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies. Because of inherent overlapping technology between ICBMs and SLVs, some Western analysts are concerned that Iran’s development of booster technology for larger, more capable SLVs will improve Iran’s ICBM potential. On 12 June 2021, Iran launched an unknown SLV and was preparing a second SLV for launch in late-June.

“Iran recognizes the strategic value of space and counterspace capabilities and will attempt to deny an adversary use of space during a conflict. Tehran has publicly acknowledged it has developed capabilities to jam space-based communications and GPS signals. Iran may also contribute to the proliferation of such jamming equipment. Since 2010, state-owned Iran Electronics Industries has marketed several GPS jammers on its website. Advancements in SLV technology could also be applied to developing a basic ground-based ASAT missile, if Iran chooses to do so in the future.”

“Iran has improved its domestic space domain awareness capabilities, establishing its first space-monitoring center in 2013. In 2005, Iran joined China-led APSCO to access SSA from other countries and hopes to expand its cooperation with the organization.”

In a report released on Nov. 19, 2019: “Iran continues to develop space launch vehicles (SLVs) with increasing lift capacity—including boosters that could be capable of ICBM ranges and potentially reach the continental United States, if configured for that purpose. Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a path - way to an ICBM because SLVs use inherently similar technologies.” 

“Iran recognizes the strategic value of space and counterspace capabilities. Tehran claims to have developed sophisticated capabilities, including SLVs and communications and remote sensing satellites. Iran’s simple SLVs are only able to launch microsatellites into low Earth orbit and have proven unreliable with few successful satellite launches. The Iran Space Agency and Iran Space Research Center—which are subordinate to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology—along with MODAFL, oversee the country’s SLV and satellite development programs. Iran initially developed its SLVs as an extension of its ballistic missile program, but it has genuine civilian and military space launch goals. Iran has conducted several successful launches of the two-stage Safir SLV since its first attempt in 2008. 

“It has also revealed the larger two-stage Simorgh SLV, which it launched in July 2017 and January 2019 without successfully placing a satellite into orbit. The Simorgh could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies. Because of the inherent overlap in technology between ICBMs and SLVs, Iran’s development of larger, more-capable SLV boosters remains a concern for a future ICBM capability. In 2005, Iran became a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), which is led by China, in order to access space technology from other countries. Iran’s counterspace capabilities have centered around jamming satellite communications and GPS, and Iran is reportedly making advancements in these areas. Iran is also seeking to improve its space object surveillance and identification capabilities through domestic development and by joining international space situational awareness projects through APSCO.”


Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (2010-2017)

In testimony to Congress on Feb. 9, 2016: “We judge that Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them. Iran's ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Iran's progress on space launch vehicles--along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies-- provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.”


Congressional Research Service

In a report released on Jan. 11, 2021: “U.S. officials assess that ‘Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV)—including on its Simorgh—shortens the timeline to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.’ Iran appears to be emphasizing the provision to its allies and proxies of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, largely because these weapons enable Iran, through its allies, to project power in the region.” 

In a report published on Jan. 9, 2020:

Space Launch Program

Iran has an ambitious space launch and satellite program and has stated that it plans to use future launches for placing intelligence-gathering satellites into orbit, although

proliferation experts assess such a capability is likely a decade or so in the future.”

Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs)

Iran currently operates two types of SLVs: the Safir (“Envoy”) and the Simorgh (“Phoenix”). Iran’s SLVs are liquid-fueled, two-stage rockets capable of placing a payload into low-earth orbit.

“Some have long believed Iran’s space launch program could mask the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with ranges in excess of 5,500 km that could threaten targets throughout Europe, and even the United States (at least 10,000 km). According to the intelligence community (IC) in 2018, “Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an ICBM. Progress on Iran’s space program, such as the launch of the Simorgh SLV in July 2017, could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.”

“ICBMs share many similar technologies and processes inherent in a space launch program, but many years ago Iran outlined a long-term dedicated space launch effort (that has since slowed considerably) that is not simply a cover for ICBM development. In addition, no country has developed an ICBM from its space launch technology base; space launch programs have generally developed from military ballistic missile programs.”