Russia has launched an Iranian satellite from Kazakhstan amid concerns it could be used for battlefield surveillance in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Iran has denied that the Khayyam satellite, which was delivered into orbit onboard a Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonur cosmodrome, would ever be under Russian control.
But the Washington Post previously reported that Moscow told Tehran it “plans to use the satellite for several months, or longer, to enhance its surveillance of military targets” in Ukraine, according to two US officials.
The satellite, named after the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam, was built by Russia and will include a high-resolution camera that would give Tehran new capabilities to monitor sensitive facilities in Israel and the Gulf, the paper reported.
Iran’s space agency has said it would control the satellite “from day one” and that “no third country is able to access its information”.
Russia’s launch of the satellite comes at a pivotal moment for its space agency Roscosmos, which has threatened to cut back on cooperation in western countries and bring in a top-level shake-up, with longtime head Dmitry Rogozin dismissed by Vladimir Putin.
Even relations between Russia and the US cooled, Roscosmos and Nasa had maintained basic levels of cooperation including ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Russia has threatened to leave the ISS in 2025 if sanctions are not lifted.
Isolated by the west, Russia has increasingly turned toward Africa, the Middle East and Asia as sources of trade and diplomatic support. And it has touted its ability to launch satellites onboard its heavy-lifting Soyuz rockets as one benefit of cooperation.
“Due to 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,” a statement on the Iranian space agency’s website noted, according to AFP.
“As ever before, today Russia is open to cooperation in the field of space exploration with all interested countries and partners,” said the Roscosmos chief, Yury Borisov, calling it “an important milestone for Russian-Iranian bilateral cooperation”.
Russia has looked to Iran as a source of expertise on adjusting to the new sanctions that have been introduced by the US and other western countries. Russia is believed to be interested in tapping into Iran’s experience on topics from circumventing banking sanctions to maintaining aircraft without readily available western parts.
Putin met the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a rare visit to Iran in July. While Russian media portrayed the trip as a signal that the Kremlin remains a power broker in the Middle East, the Pentagon spokesperson said the visit showed “the degree to which Mr Putin and Russia are increasingly isolated”.