Space Threat 2018: Iran Assessment

Iran’s pursuit of space and counterspace capabilities is a more recent development and is tied in many ways to its ballistic missile programs. However, Iran has previously used advanced jamming against commercial satellites and are reportedly further developing their cyber capabilities, as well.

The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here.

Overall Space Capabilities

Tehran views its space program as critical to its national pride and the fight against its external enemies.
Steve LambakisNational Institute for Public Policy 1

IRAN’S PURSUIT OF SPACE CAPABILITIES is a relatively recent development, and its efforts in space are often viewed as a thinly-veiled cover for its developing ballistic missile program.2 Iran still has a relatively weak space industrial base, especially given evidence suggesting that a portion of Iran’s space technologies were adapted from Russian and North Korean counterparts.3 Iran has developed, tested, and proliferated a wide range of ballistic missiles, including the Shahab-3, which is believed to be derived from the North Korean No Dong 1 missile,4 and the Safir-2, which has been used as a space launch vehicle.5 Iran maintains two domestic space launch facilities in the northeastern Semnan Province. Iran has also secured an agreement to use the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for space launch.6  

Iran successfully launched its first domestically-manufactured satellite on a Safir-2 rocket in 2009, and has vowed to put a human in space by 2025.7 While human spaceflight remains a stretch for Iran, the space agency claims to have sent various living creatures into space in recent years, including a mouse, turtle, and worms. In 2013, Iran stated that it had sent a monkey into space.8 Iran has also developed space capabilities with military applications, such as a space monitoring center announced in June 2013 that uses radar, electro-optical, and radio tracking. According to the Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, “the base is aimed at securing the country’s space facilities and monitoring space objects, especially satellites that pass overhead.”9 The defense minister also revealed that Iran is using satellites to control unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) so that it can operate over longer distances and is not limited by line-of-sight radio links.10

Space Organization and Doctrine

IN 2003, IRAN FORMED THE IRANIAN SPACE AGENCY to coordinate its space activities and technology development. The space agency is in charge of both military and civil space programs, and the distinctions between the two have at times been blurred.11 The agency is under the oversight of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, but it takes direction from the Supreme Space Council. The Supreme Space Council is chaired by the president of Iran and is presided over by the defense minister.12 The head of the Iranian Space Agency serves as the secretary of the Supreme Space Council.13  

Little is publicly known about Iran’s doctrine for space and counterspace operations, but evidence suggests that Iran believes its ability “to deny the United States the ability to use space in a regional conflict” is critical to its security.14 While Iran is not a major space power in terms of its space capabilities, it has developed significant counterspace capabilities that can threaten U.S. space systems. A Council on Foreign Relations report from 2014 assesses that, “Iran undertakes more purposeful interference with U.S. military and commercial space systems using lasers and jammers than any other country.”15

Image Source: Iranian Safir Rocket. VAHIDREZA ALAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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Image Source: Robert Karma / Flickr

Open-source information does not indicate that Iran is attempting to develop either direct- ascent or co-orbital ASAT weapons; however, Iran has the ballistic missile technology necessary to form the basis of a kinetic ASAT capability. Iran has demonstrated the ability to launch and operate rudimentary satellites, and its space monitoring center gives it the ability to track objects and better understand the space environment. But many other technological hurdles would need to be overcome before it could field a kinetic ASAT weapon, such as onboard sensors that could steer a warhead into a target satellite.

Iran could construct a crude direct-ascent ASAT capability in the near-term by using existing ballistic missile technology to launch an unguided warhead within the vicinity of a target satellite. An unguided kinetic ASAT weapon is unlikely to be effective at striking a satellite directly, but it could create a debris hazard that threatens the safety of the target satellite and other satellites in a similar orbit.

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Image Source: U.S. Air Force

Iran may have acquired and used a laser dazzling or blinding counterspace system on a United States satellite. In 2011, the Christian Science Monitor quoted an unnamed European intelligence source stating that Iran managed to “blind” a U.S. satellite by “aiming a laser burst quite accurately.”16 The technology necessary to do this, particularly the adaptive optics needed to steer and focus a laser as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, is rather sophisticated. Iran may have obtained this technology from Russia or China, and Iran’s capabilities in this area remain highly uncertain based on publicly available information.

The Director of National Intelligence has publicly stated that Iran has not yet developed a nuclear weapon and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) “has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.”17 If Iran were to pursue a breakout nuclear capability, it is conceivable that it could mate a nuclear weapon with one of its ballistic missiles to create a nuclear ASAT capability.18 However, the aim of Iran’s nuclear program all along has been to develop a nuclear-armed ICBM to deter the United States, not a nuclear ASAT weapon.

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Image Source: Jose Gil / Adobe Stock

Iran has an extensive record of using electronic forms of attack against space systems, including uplink jamming, downlink jamming, and spoofing. On July 16, 2003, Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to Iran began to experience interference with their transmissions over the Telestar-12 satellite. The uplink jamming of this commercial satellite originated from an area around Havana, Cuba. The U.S. State Department notified Cuba of the issue, and the Cubans determined that the jamming was “by the Iranians in Cuba, using a compound in a suburb of the capital belonging to the Iranian embassy.” Cuban authorities promptly shut down the Iranian facility and issued a note of protest to the Iranian government.19

In another incident in 2010, Iran jammed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and VOA satellite signals going into Iran. At first, the jamming targeted BBC and VOA broadcasts on the Hot Bird 6 commercial satellite; when the broadcasts were moved to other commercial satellites, the jamming targeted them as well.20

Perhaps the most concerning electronic attack capability Iran has publicly acknowledged is its ability to spoof GPS signals. In 2011, Iran claimed to have downed a U.S. RQ-170 drone by jamming its satellite communications links and spoofing the GPS signals it received. An Iranian engineer was quoted at the time as saying that they were able to make the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications.”21 Attackers can interfere with satellite signals through a process called “meaconing” in which a legitimate GPS signal is spoofed and rebroadcast at a higher power level. This method of attack does not require cracking the encryption used in the military GPS signal because the data in the signal is not modified but rather is simply rebroadcasted with a slight time delay.22 The U.S. government did not verify Iran’s claims, but if true, they represent a significant counterspace capability that could be used to thwart U.S. precision-guided weapons in the future.

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Iran is also believed to have advanced offensive cyber capabilities that could potentially be used to target U.S. space systems. Specifically, Iran is believed to be actively exploring the military uses of cyber capabilities to disrupt enemy missile defense systems, remotely piloted aircraft, logistics operations, and command and control links.23 In the past, Iran has demonstrated its cyber capabilities by attacking U.S. infrastructure. In 2012, Iran launched a massive denial of service attack against United States banks and telecommunications companies. This particular incident prompted a public statement by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warning that the imminent threat of a cyberattack that could cause significant property damage or kill U.S. citizens would be sufficient justification for a pre-emptive military strike.24 Iran’s sophisticated cyber capabilities suggest that it could employ cyberattacks on space systems as well.