The Washington Post reported tonight (Thursday-Friday) that Russia is preparing to provide Iran with an advanced satellite that will give Iranians an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets throughout the Middle East and beyond. Officials in the US and the Middle East were briefed on the details of the agreement.
According to the plan, Russia will provide the Iranians with its Kanopus-V satellite, which is equipped with a high-resolution camera that will greatly improve Iran’s espionage capabilities. Among other things, this will allow the Iranians continuous supervision of facilities, from oil refineries in the Persian Gulf and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks inhabited by American soldiers. This is according to the sources, who added that the agreement may be implemented within a few months.
Although Kanopus-V is marketed as a satellite for civilian use, Iranian military personnel were heavily involved in the purchase. Leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards have traveled to Russia several times since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, officials told the Washington Post. This spring, Russian experts traveled to Iran to help train crews to operate the satellite from a new facility being built near the northern Iranian city of Karaj.
Sources in the current and past U.S. administration as well as a senior official in one of the Middle East governments provided the details to the Washington Post, after receiving a briefing regarding the deal. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow chose not to comment on the publication.
The revelations come ahead of the first meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva. The latest to hit the U.S. election.
If fully implemented, the agreement would be a significant boost to the Iranian military establishment – which has struggled in its attempts to launch its own military spy satellite. After several notable failures, Iran last year successfully launched a local military satellite called the Noor-1, but the spacecraft was quickly ridiculed by a senior Pentagon official who described it as “a falling webcam.”
Under the agreement reached with Moscow, Iran’s new satellite will be launched from Russia and will include Russian hardware, including a 1.2-meter resolution camera – a significant improvement over Iran’s current capabilities, though still far from the quality of US spy satellites and advanced commercial satellite imagery. More importantly, “Iran will be able to ‘designate’ the new satellite for selected locations, as often as it chooses,” officials said.
“It’s not the best in the world, but it’s high resolution and very good for military purposes,” said a senior Middle East official familiar with the satellite’s hardware. “This capability will allow Iran to maintain an accurate target bank and update it every few hours daily.”
“Equally worrying,” the same source said, “is the possibility that Iran could share satellite images with pro – Iranian militias deployed in the region, from Houthi rebels fighting forces backed by the Saudi government in Yemen to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.” Pro-Iranian militias have been linked to repeated rocket attacks on Iraqi military bases where U.S. forces and military trainers are located.
The writing was on the wall
While key aspects of the satellite’s capabilities have been kept secret, Iran and Russia have publicly revealed their intention to enter the space business together. As early as 2015, the Iranian news channel Press TV reported that Iranian and Russian companies had signed an agreement that would allow Iran to purchase a “long-range sensing system that can be used to gather information on Earth, the atmosphere and the oceans.”
The same article included the Russian entities that will take part in the deal – NPK BARL and VNIIEM, two companies that will be built and launched the satellite in partnership with the Iranian trading company operated by Bunian Denesh Shrag and the Iranian space agency.
Independent experts and analysts said Iran’s new espionage capabilities would be particularly worrying given Tehran’s recent progress in targeted missile systems. Iran produces an array of ballistic missiles and drones capable of hitting long-range targets accurately, and access to better quality satellite imagery could make the missiles even more effective, some experts said.
“When they have how to update data on a regular basis, the Iranians will have added technical and operational options that they did not have in the past,” said Christopher Ford, a senior State Department official responsible for preventing the distribution of weapons in the Trump administration. “It sounds like a significant upgrade, and not just a slight push up the slope in terms of potential military applications.”
Other experts noted that Iran had previously been able to acquire high-resolution images from commercial satellite companies, although Tehran’s ability to obtain real-time data on potential military targets was limited.
“A local ability to take these pictures is something the military wants because it’s expensive for them,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms proliferation expert and professor at the Middlbery Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California. He added that the acquisition of Russian technology would in fact allow the Iranians a faster way to the capability they would have acquired on their own, given sufficient time. “Is the Iranian army happy? Yes, and that’s a real change,” Lewis said. “But it would happen sooner or later.”