In the space of a few hours on Sunday, Iran unveiled a new ballistic missile and launched a domestically-built satellite – which failed, however, to reach orbit.
The launch of the satellite happened at 7:15pm local time at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province, some 230km (145 miles) southeast of the capital, Tehran. State television said, however, that a Simorgh rocket could not put the Zafar 1 communications satellite into orbit due to a low speed.
“Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit,” Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for the defence ministry’s space programme, told state television.
The satellite, which Iran says was to be used for scientific observation, is part of a programme the United States has previously described as a “provocation”.
Iran’s Minister of Telecommunications Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi admitted in a Twitter post that “failure happened”, adding: “But We’re UNSTOPPABLE! We have more Upcoming Great Iranian Satellites!”
Earlier on Sunday, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in charge of Iran’s missile programme, unveiled a new ballistic missile it said was powered by a new generation of engines designed to send satellites into orbit.
The announcement came just days before the 41st anniversary of the 1979 revolution, an occasion routinely used by Iran to display technological advances for its armed forces.
State television said the new short-range ballistic missile – dubbed the Raad-500 – has a range up to 500km (310 miles). That is some 200km (124 miles) more than the Fateh-110, a ballistic ground-to-ground missile first unveiled in 2002 that weighs twice as much as the new missile.
The Raad-500 is also equipped with new Zoheir engines made of composite materials lighter than earlier steel models, according to the IRGC’s Sepah News website.
The IRGC also unveiled new missile engines made of the same material but with a “moveable nozzle” for the delivery of the satellites into space. The technology increases a missile’s accuracy in hitting targets.
IRGC commander Hossein Salami unveiled the missile and engines alongside the force’s aerospace chief General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, in an unknown location, according to state television.
Salami said the moveable nozzle on the new engine allowed “manoeuvrability beyond the atmosphere” and amounted to a “leap in modern missile technology”. The new technologies that made the missiles “cheaper, lighter, faster and more precise” could be applied to all of Iran’s missile classes, he added.
Iran has developed a large domestic arms industry in the face of international sanctions and embargoes that have barred it from importing many weapons.
Sunday’s announcement is in line with Iran’s defence policy, which shifted in 2009 when Tehran could no longer invest into its air force due to sanctions.
“Because of sanctions, Iranian air force is completely behind regional powers such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey,” said Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee.
“So the only way it can survive, while still creating deterrence in the region and build up credibility inside the country, is through its missile programme.”
The US has voiced concerns in the past about Iran’s ballistic programme, saying the launch of a carrier rocket in January 2019 amounted to a violation of curbs on its development of ballistic missiles.
In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a landmark nuclear accord with Tehran, citing its lack of restrictions on Irans’s ballistic programme as one of the reasons for the move.
The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers and limited Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
Since the US withdrawal and reimposition of crippling sanctions, Iran has responded by progressively rolling back its commitments to the nuclear deal.
Iran maintains it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons and says its aerospace activities are peaceful.