This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows an Iranian military satellite -- dubbed the Noor -- which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched in the Markazi desert, a vast expanse in Iran's central plateau, amid tensions with US. Photo: Sepah News / AFP

The United States on Thursday said it was tracking two new objects in space, the Noor-1 satellite and a Qased rocket body, apparent confirmation that Iran’s first military satellite launch was a success.

Iranian Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, chief of staff of the armed forces, hailed the Wednesday launch as a historic first.

“Launching the Noor-1 satellite is regarded as a blessed dawn for boosting defense power by entering space and promoting science and deterrence power in line with maintaining self-sufficiency,” he said in a message carried by state media.

The launch was carried out in three stages involving both liquid and solid fuel, according to Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force.

IRGC Commander Hosein Salami for his part emphasized the significance of Iran building its own satellite, versus relying on larger powers for eyes in the sky as done by the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

“Naturally, only superpowers enjoy this capability, and others are just consumers of the technology,” Major-General Salami told Iran’s state news agency.

The US Space Force last month acquired a Counter Communications System, which “reversibly denies adversary satellite communications.”

The new system could potentially be deployed against the Iranian satellite.

Commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, pictured on April 22, 2020, after the launch of Iran’s debut military satellite. Photo: IRNA

Projecting power

The launch comes as Iran battles the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the region, with more than 85,000 recorded cases and over 5,000 deaths.

“Despite facing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, Iran has tried over the past month to demonstrate that the pandemic has not reduced its ability to project power or challenge US interests,” the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a brief.

The Trump administration has been ratcheting up sanctions on Tehran even as both countries found themselves facing the largest Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.

“Tehran may also be trying to take advantage of distraction in Washington to slowly improve its position,” the Eurasia Group added.

One week ago, the US Navy said Iranian ships were approaching its vessels in a “provocative” manner in the Persian Gulf, coming within 10 yards.

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday tweeted that he had given instructions for the Navy to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian gunboats, should they harass American ships.

An Iranian military spokesman quickly fired off a riposte, attempting to shift attention to the US Navy’s struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Forty US warships have experienced Covid-19 outbreaks, CNN reported Wednesday, while more than 3,500 American service members have so far tested positive for the virus.

“Today, instead of bullying others, the Americans should put all their efforts toward saving members of their armed forces who are infected with coronavirus,” the spokesman told the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

A bitter coup

Iran’s notable space advance follows a bitter start to the year for its armed forces.

The IRGC in January came under fierce international and domestic criticism after fatally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane on January 8, killing all 176 people aboard.

The deadly shoot-down occurred less than a week after the Islamic Republic’s most charismatic commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, was assassinated by a US drone strike in Iraq.

Iranian air defenses were on high alert at the time of the fatal mistake.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani initially denied that an Iranian missile had struck the plane. But following intense international pressure, namely by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whose dual nationals were on board, the armed forces came forward with their mistake.

The apparent attempted cover-up by the IRGC only deepened public anger over the loss of life.

The fatal mistake and fumbling response also cut short a prized moment of national unity. Days before, Iranians from across the ideological spectrum had taken to the streets to protest the US killing of Soleimani.

The space launch in better times may have been a coup for the IRGC. Now, it offers a path to restore domestic respect.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.