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Is Russia Going to Provide Iran a Spy Satellite and What Are the Implications?

 
Filed under: Iran, Russia, The Middle East

Is Russia Going to Provide Iran a Spy Satellite and What Are the Implications?
The Noor-1 satellite, launched atop an Islamic Revolutionary Guard rocket in April 2020. “A tumbling webcam.” (Tehran Times)

According to a June 11, 2021, report in the Washington Post,1 Russia is preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that will give Tehran an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets across the Middle East and beyond. The report was confirmed by current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials who were briefed on details of the arrangement.

The plan would deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops. The launch could happen within months, according to the sources.

Putin’s Denial and Iran’s Dangerous Gain

The report was made public days before the planned meeting on June 16, 2021, between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin that is expected to be strained. Asked about the satellite report in an interview with NBC, Putin dismissed it as “garbage,” and denied the existence of such a deal. “It’s just fake news,” said the Russian president. “At the very least, I don’t know anything about this kind of thing.”2

The Kanopus-V is marketed for civilian use and will be equipped with a camera with a resolution of 1.2 meters, which is not as good as the resolution of Western and Israeli or Russian and Chinese military satellites. Nevertheless, it is still much better than what Iran can download today from other commercial satellites available on the open market. The satellite will improve the image accuracy and provide Iran with the ability to control the imaging priorities.

Kanopus-V satellite
The Kanopus-V satellite as presented on the website of the Moscow-based RACURS company.

According to the Washington Post, Iranian military officials have been heavily involved in the acquisition. Leaders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, officials said. As recently as this spring, Russian experts traveled to Iran to help train ground crews that would operate the satellite from a newly built facility near the northern city of Karaj, they reported.

Iran has a plan of its own to place a reconnaissance satellite in space. After several prominent failures, Iran, last year, successfully launched an indigenous military satellite dubbed Noor-1, but the spacecraft was quickly derided by a senior Pentagon official as a “tumbling webcam.” It seems that much of the Iranian effort to launch satellites is actually connected to the attempt to develop and produce long-range ballistic missiles using the satellite launches as a cover.

Despite Putin’s denial, if the report is correct, the relatively high resolution of the satellite, its collected data, and Iranian control should cause considerable concern to Israel and the United States:

  1. It may enable Iran to acquire updated information about Israeli, American, and American allies’ targets in the region. This is especially dangerous because Iran has developed in recent years many offensive capabilities such as ballistic and cruise missiles and underwater and aerial assault vehicles that are precision-guided. Satellite data could provide them with precise and real-time information which could significantly improve their accuracy and lethality. It should be noted that until now, Iran relied on commercial imagery that is limited and sometimes omits sensitive military data. Iranian intelligence also relies on HUMINT (human intelligence) as a significant component of the Iranian intelligence effort.
  2. This satellite may enable Iran to share valuable information with its proxies in the region, such as Hizbullah, the Iraqi militias, the Houthis in Yemen, and the forces under its control in Syria. Since Iran supplies these groups with precision-guided munitions, the provision of accurate and close to real-time information will considerably improve the proxies’ military capabilities, as well.
  3. The deal may give the Iranians access to advanced technical capabilities that they may use to develop independent satellites with higher resolutions.

In view of these concerns, it is imperative that the United States and Israel, together with their Arab allies, convey a clear message to Russia that this deal should not materialize.

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Notes