A photo released on February 1, 2021, shows Iran's newest satellite-carrying rocket, called 'Zuljanah.' launched at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP / Iranian Defense Ministry

Iran is on the march to destroy the established order in the Middle East and replace it with a regional order of its own design. Iran has developed a coterie of capabilities with which to threaten its American, Israeli, and Sunni Arab rivals. 

At key points in its development, the Islamic Republic was aided by both Russia and China, two of America’s great-power rivals on the world stage. In fact, with the help of both Russia and China, Iran is becoming a real challenger for military supremacy in the Middle East.

Recently, the Putinist regime in Russia announced its intention to sell an advanced surveillance satellite to the Islamic Republic. In my book Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), I warned readers about the threat that Iran’s growing space program posed to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. 

As the late Taylor Dinerman prophetically wrote in the online publication The Space Review back in 2004: “If Iran can build and test a nuclear weapon and prove that it has the capability to build and launch a satellite, even a small one, it will join a new category of states that could be referred to as ‘mini-superpowers.’ …

“Having a satellite in orbit and a ‘bomb in the basement’ gives a government options, and a certain amount [more] room to maneuver than states without that capability would have.”

Well, friends, Iran already has a “bomb in the basement.” Whether the weapons that Iran has developed are sophisticated or not, the fact is that, like their North Korean partners, Iran likely has obtained some degree of nuclear-weapons capability.

As the Iranians work assiduously to perfect their rudimentary nuclear-weapons capabilities, the Islamist regime has invested heavily in its ballistic-missile capabilities. In some cases, Iran has hidden these growing missile capabilities under the guise of its “civilian” space program (no national space program is entirely civilian in nature, by the way).

This year, Iran successfully tested its largest heavy-lift rocket yet. Known as the Zuljanah, the rocket has two stages of solid propulsion and a single stage of liquid propulsion. According to Iran’s space agency, the rocket “can compete with the world’s current carriers.” At the time, the Iranian government refused to specify what the rocket would be used for, merely stating that it would be used for “research purposes.” 

In fact, these systems can be used to launch military satellites or can be refashioned into intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with which to strike deep and hard against any target in the world – including the distant United States and Europe.

As Iran’s space capabilities grow, so too will its overall threat to the region … and the world. And America’s rivals, like Russia, are happily supporting these developments as part of a concerted effort to box the Americans and their allies out of the wider Eurasian region.

Satellites are essential for modern militaries. They allow for over-the-horizon capabilities that a nation like Iran would otherwise lack. Everything from a more robust communications architecture to stealthy surveillance to better nuclear weapons command-and-control functions, satellites are decisive components for a nation to be able to project power and threaten its rivals from afar.

Until recently, Iran lacked a serious indigenous space capability. But just as with its suspected nuclear-weapons program, Iran is enhancing its satellite capability. This at the precise moment that the Americans are bugging out of the regions, the Sunnis are making new calculations, the pro-Iranian Russians and Chinese are moving in, and the Israelis are increasingly isolated. 

The Russian-built Kanopus-V satellite will be equipped with a high-resolution camera that would allow Iran’s military to track potential targets all across the Middle East. Specifically, the surveillance satellite would allow Iran’s military “continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house US troops.” 

Since 2015, Iran has embarked on an unconventional campaign of regional aggression. Along with the Russians, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces have fought for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, against the United States and its allies. From there, Iranian forces have basically created a land bridge linking their territory through Iraq into Syria and down into Lebanon, where they can now feed supplies and troops to Hezbollah to threaten northern Israel. 

It is thanks to these developments that the IRGC is now able to forward-deploy Iran’s increasingly advanced precision-guided missiles right next to Israeli territory, in Lebanon. Iranian drones, which have become a dire threat to the region, have advanced significantly as well and are now also forward-deployed to places like Syria and Yemen, where they plague Israeli and Saudi forces respectively.

Iranian drones also harass US naval forces transiting through the Strait of Hormuz, one of seven vital world oil chokepoints, and one that sits precariously close to Iranian territory.

More frighteningly, reports have surfaced that Iran might also be trying to move its precision-guided missiles into Venezuela and Cuba, to threaten the United States further. An enhanced military satellite capability would only help this aggressive behavior.

One can expect that, over the next decade, Iranian satellite capabilities will only increase, making Iran’s military threat to the region more severe. And Iran has proved countless times that it will not behave as a responsible regional actor. The Islamist regime will work to destabilize what it believes is a pro-American regional order and will align with any and all of America’s enemies to achieve this ambition. 

Preventing Iran from acquiring advanced space capabilities must be a priority. Any failure to prevent the proliferation of advanced space capabilities to Iran will ensure that the Islamic Republic can more directly threaten its neighbors and destabilize the region.

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.