Iran Simorgh Satellite Launch Update, Part 3

March 14, 2016 | 4:58 pm
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Iran has again issued a NOTAM for the area around Semnan (OID51 in Arms Control Wonk’s google map). The notice to airmen was issued on Saturday, and is valid from today through Thursday, March 17.

U.S. officials, according to a Fox News report, are watching the Simorgh rocket “on the launch pad as it is being fueled at an undisclosed location inside Iran.” If this is a Simorgh launch, presumably the fueling is taking place at Imam Khomeini Space Center, where launch preparations were observed a few weeks ago, and which is covered by the above NOTAM.

Who knows if it really will get off the pad this week? NOTAMs get issued and expire all the time without a launch.

Third time’s a charm?

This is my third post on this launch, and it doesn’t look so charming. We’ve been watching for a launch for a number of weeks, but the context has changed. Last week, Iran reportedly fired a barrage of ballistic missiles from silos in central Iran. These are the first Iranian missile tests since United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 superseded Resolution 1929 in January with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), i.e., the Iran nuclear deal, implementation.

The new language “calls on” Iran not to undertake missile activity (rather than “shall not undertake”). In the old language, the banned activity is activity “related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In current language, the problematic activity is that “related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” (Emphasis added.)

As U.S. officials have made clear the administration doesn’t believe last week’s tests are a violation of the JPCOA, but instead that the tests are “inconsistent with” Resolution 2231. (That point is being used to criticize the deal by members of Congress who opposed the Iran nuclear agreement.) That’s essentially how Russia is describing it, too. The Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin stated:

A call is different from a ban so legally you cannot violate a call, you can comply with a call or you can ignore the call, but you cannot violate a call. The legal distinction is there.

However, this doesn’t mean a response isn’t imminent. The members of the UNSC are mulling unilateral sanctions and collective action. The UNSC met today (Monday, March 14) to discuss how to respond to the provocative tests. Afterwards, the U.S. Ambassador Power urged the UNSC to act despite “the quibbling we heard today about this and that,” and said that the U.S. would consider its own response.

As Greg Thielmann notes, the missiles tested last week had all been tested previously and don’t shed much light on the progress of Iran’s more capable missiles. The heat would certainly turn up should the Simorgh actually launch. The Simorgh appears designed specifically as a satellite launcher, not as a ballistic missile, although some of the technology used in it could be used for a ballistic missile. (Again, it is important to reiterate that it would take significant time to convert a satellite launcher to a ballistic missile, that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, and that Iran has not tested a heat-shielding re-entry vehicle.)

But launching a yet more capable rocket this week, before the dust even settles from last week, seems like very poor timing for anyone invested in the success of the Iran nuclear deal.

Previous posts on the launch:
Iran’s Upcoming Simorgh Rocket Launch
Update on Possible Iranian Simorgh Rocket Launch