The Islamic Republic of Iran has just sent a clear signal to the United States, Israel, the European Union and its Middle Eastern neighbours that it remains committed to its determination to be seen as a hegemonic regional power to be reckoned with on the international stage.
Its way of making this clear has been to place a spy satellite in orbit, a powerful reconnaissance platform that, for Iran's armed forces, represents a giant leap in its observation and intelligence gathering capabilities vis-à-vis its declared enemies.
It happened on Tuesday morning, 9 August, at around 06:52 Spanish peninsular time. A Soyuz-2 launcher took off from the Republic of Kazakhstan, where Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome - which the Kremlin has leased for decades - is located, and positioned the space platform at an altitude of less than 500 kilometres. For Iranian Communications Minister Eissa Zarepour, the launch of the Khayyam satellite "is the beginning of strategic cooperation between Iran and Russia in the field of space"
The device is named in honour of Omar Khayyam, a great Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet of the Middle Ages (1048-1131), to whom the supreme leader of the Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, who has been in office for 33 years, and President Ebrahim Raisi, 62, who took office a year ago, have paid tribute.
The electro-optical spy satellite weighs about 473 kilos and has three powerful cameras in the visible and infrared spectrums, one of them with a high resolution of about 1.2 metres, it has been found. The Omar Khayyam belongs to the Russian Kanopus-V family of satellites produced by the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics, known in the space sector as VNIIEM
VNIIEM is a veteran state research and production agency specialising in space engineering, which has realised the Kanopus and Resours ranges of observation satellites and the Meteor meteorological satellites. The project also involved the Russian company NPK Barl and the Iranian company Bonyan Danesh Shargh, which are responsible for providing the ground segment technology and training Iranian space technicians.
The official information released by the governments of Tehran and Moscow is that the purpose of the satellite is to obtain panchromatic (black and white) multispectral (colour) and infrared images of Iran's extensive territory - more than three times the size of Spain - to improve the productivity of the country's agriculture and water resources, monitor the progress of deforestation, ensure the conservation of the oil sector and monitor Iran's borders.
But the Defence Ministry, headed by General Mohamed-Reza Gharaei Ashtiani since August 2021, is closely involved in the project. Russia has provided an entire space reconnaissance system for Iran, which will soon be completed with the launch of a second spy satellite. Military personnel are attached to the control centre that has been set up in Karaj and a select group of officers and non-commissioned officers are the analysts of images of military interest.
The White House has been up in arms about the launch, despite the fact that the many dozens of US spy satellites in orbit far exceed the performance that Khayyam is expected to provide. Through the Washington Post, the Biden administration has accused Iran that the first images captured by the spy satellite are in response to Russian demands. According to the newspaper, Moscow will use the new satellite for the first few months "to track Ukrainian forces for possible missile targets".
For the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which since October 2020 has been headed by Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, the satellite is a factor of imbalance for the Middle East and also for the conflict scenario. The Kremlin's aim is to obtain information on the positions and movements of Ukrainian troops and the locations of US M142 Himars terminal-guided rocket launchers in order to identify new targets for its hypersonic and cruise missiles
In contrast, a 7 August communiqué from the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) - created in February 2004 - states that all orders related to the control and operation of Khayyam will be carried out "from day one and immediately after the launch by Iranian experts based at Iran's space bases". In any case, the images will not be operational for at least a couple of months after the satellite's cameras and parameters have been calibrated.
Russia does not need the images from the new satellite either. Its Strategic Forces have higher resolution spy satellites at their disposal, along with a whole fleet of six Kanopus-Vs in orbit. During the week of 1-7 August, several meetings took place in Baikonur between a Roscosmos delegation led by its newly appointed director general, Yuri Borisov, and Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Kazem Jalali. In addition to reviewing the Khayyam project, the two sides discussed "new ways of strengthening technological ties" and "expanding the number of joint projects".
Russian technicians completed on 4 August at the cosmodrome's Integration and Test Building 40 the final operations to adjust the Iranian satellite and 16 other small devices that accompany it inside the upper part of the Soyuz-2 rocket. The following morning, Soyuz-2 was moved by rail to the launch ramp, where it was placed in a vertical position and underwent final pre-launch checks.
On 19 July, on his second trip abroad following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, President Vladimir Putin met in Tehran with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi to strengthen cooperation between the two regimes on Syria, strengthen good bilateral trade and economic relations and expand space collaboration.
Russia's investments in Iran are in the order of $4 billion, but during Putin's visit, Russian energy giant Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) signed memoranda of understanding worth close to $40 billion to introduce new technology and exploit two rich gas fields and six oil fields.
Iran is home to the world's second largest natural gas reserves after Russia, but its infrastructure has been badly damaged by the effects of sanctions, which have prevented foreign investment. Now, in the current negotiations in Vienna, Tehran is seeking to remove restrictions and Russia wants to strengthen its role vis-à-vis the government of new President Ebrahim Raisi.