An Iranian satellite launched by Russia blasted off from Kazakhstan on Tuesday and reached orbit amid controversy that Moscow might use it to boost its surveillance of military targets in Ukraine.
As Russia’s international isolation grows following Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking to pivot Russia toward the Middle East, Asia and Africa and find new clients for the country’s space program.
Speaking at the Moscow-controlled Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe, Russian space chief Yury Borisov hailed “an important milestone in Russian-Iranian bilateral cooperation, opening the way to the implementation of new and even larger projects.”
Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Isa Zarepour, who also attended the launch of the Khayyam satellite, called the event historic and “a turning point for the start of a new interaction in the field of space between our two countries.”
Nasser Kanani, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Twitter that “the brilliant path of scientific and technological progress of the Islamic republic of Iran continues despite sanctions and the enemies’ maximum pressure.”
Iran, which has maintained ties with Moscow and refrained from criticism of the Ukraine invasion, has sought to deflect suspicions that Moscow could use Khayyam to spy on Ukraine.
Last week, The Washington Post quoted anonymous Western intelligence officials as saying that Russia “plans to use the satellite for several months or longer” to assist its war efforts before allowing Iran to take control.
Less than two hours after the satellite was launched on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket, the Iran Space Agency (ISA) said “ground stations of the Iran Space Agency” had received “first telemetric data.”
The space agency stressed on Sunday that the Islamic republic would control the satellite “from day one” in an apparent reaction to the Post’s report.
“No third country is able to access the information” sent by the satellite because of its “encrypted algorithm,” it said.
The purpose of Khayyam is to “monitor the country’s borders,” enhance agricultural productivity and monitor water resources and natural disasters, according to the space agency.
Iran is negotiating with world powers, including Moscow, to salvage a 2015 deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The United States quit the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran last month, one of his few trips abroad since Moscow’s February 24 invasion.
Iran’s Khamenei called for “long-term cooperation” with Russia during their meeting, and Tehran has refused to join international condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbor.
Iran insists its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only, and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal, or any other international agreement.
Borisov, who last month replaced bombastic nationalist Dmitry Rogozin as head of the Russian space agency, had acknowledged that the national space industry is in a “difficult situation” amid tensions with the West.
Russia will continue its space program but end activities at the International Space Station, an outlier of cooperation between Moscow and the West, after 2024, he said.