The West says Russia might use the Iranian satellite for spying purposes in regard to the Ukraine conflict. But experts say Russia already has a powerful reconnaissance capacity.
An Iranian satellite’s journey to its heavenly orbit from a Russian facility might seem like just another instance of global space cooperation. But for many in the West, the Iranian satellite, named ‘Khayyam’, could be potentially used by Moscow to keep an eye on Ukrainian military moves in the ongoing conflict that has dragged on for nearly six months.
Russia’s Soyuz station successfully launched the Iranian satellite from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur facility, which is under Moscow’s control, on Tuesday. Prior to its launching, some Western officials had expressed concerns over the possibility of Moscow using the satellite to gain intelligence on Ukrainian military capabilities.
But some experts find the West’s concerns incredulous.
And they have their reasons. Russia operates the world’s third largest fleet of spacecraft and has long had adequate surveillance capability empowered by many of its satellites over Ukraine and other countries. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and the Russian Federation took over the communist power’s space capabilities.
“Russia already has more than enough equipment for spying against anyone anywhere,” says Fatima A Karimkhan, a senior reporter at Iranian Student News Agency (IRNA), a state-funded media outlet.
Iran also rejected Western claims that its satellite might be used by Russians against Ukrainians. "The rumours about using the satellite's photos for military purposes are wrong," said an Iranian statement yesterday. Tehran also indicated that Iran will have the exclusive privilege to use the satellite “from day one”.
Iran says the satellite will aim to serve to watch the country’s borders and agricultural programmes, monitoring water sources and Tehran’s environmental applications. “This special satellite can have one-metre resolution which (will) help Iran have more data from the region and its own land,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
Western security officials believe that the Iranian satellite will increase Tehran’s ability to spy on rival targets across the Middle East from Syria to Iraq, the Gulf and Israel.
Karimkhan underlines that “there are some doubts” in Iran that Moscow will let Tehran use the information from the satellite in a timely manner because “people in Iran usually have minimum trust in Russia”.
However, the Tehran-based journalist is quick to point out that despite the mistrust, there is a working relationship between the two anti-Western states, from Syria to Iraq and other regions like Central Asia.
Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based political analyst on Eurasia, has similar views to Karimkhan. “It’s really technically questionable that Russia needs Iran’s newly-launched satellite for its spying activities,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World, finding the Western concerns a little “exaggerated”.
“In a technological sense, Russia’s current space capabilities are good enough for its spying activities against the West, as Russians continue to compete with Americans in the space race,” says Yalinkilicli.
After 2025, Russia wants to develop its own space station, breaking up its ties with Western space agencies like NASA to pursue its own interests without partnering with them, according to the Moscow-based analyst. Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system has already become a powerful competitor, rivalling the US GPS system.
Russia and the US are currently partners, along with a few other countries, in running the International Space Station (ISS) but Moscow is said to be planning to pull out of the programme to launch its own space outpost.
But, according to Yalinkilicli, it can not surely be said that the newly-launched Iranian satellite would not be used for Russian military purposes because bilateral ties between Tehran and Moscow have never been “transparent”.
The Tuesday launch was not a first for Iran, which had launched its Sina-1 satellite with the help of Russians in 2005. "Due to the Khayyam satellite's weight of more than half-a-tonne, and the very high success rate of the Soyuz launcher, the launch of the Khayyam satellite has been entrusted to Russia," said the Iranian statement in regard to its recent launch.
Iran, like China, has chosen to follow a neutral stance in regard to the Russian onslaught on Ukraine since the beginning of the military conflict on February 24. Russia-Iran connections have been strengthened with the intensification of the Ukraine conflict, according to Karimkhan. The two countries have long been strategic alliances.
“There are some unofficial reports about Russia buying Iranian drones and [Vladimir] Putin’s latest trip to Iran was an important step in a long way to tighten the relationship between the two countries,” says Karimkhan.
Last month, the Russian president made his first visit outside Russia to Tehran since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian political and religious leaders. During the Tehran meeting, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei asked for "long-term cooperation" with Russia.
Russian companies alongside Chinese firms are very active in Iran, says Yalinkilicli. “Iran's economy, particularly its infrastructure sector, has been parcelled out between Russia and China,” says the analyst. “We knew that these economic ties have also been translated into military cooperation for a long time.”