A Russian rocket on Tuesday launched into orbit an Iranian surveillance satellite that Western analysts say will improve Iran’s intelligence gathering, in a tangible sign of the expanding cooperation between two countries faced with crippling Western economic sanctions.
Russia has been seeking closer alliances, including with Iran, since its invasion of Ukraine left it isolated by many Western countries. Iran said this week that the satellite launch is part of a four-year space cooperation agreement between the two countries.
“The successful launch of the satellite in the interests and on the order of Iran has become an important milestone in Russian-Iranian bilateral cooperation, opening the way to the implementation of new and even larger projects,” Yury Borisov, the director general of Roscosmos, the Russian state-run space agency, said in a statement.
The Iranian space agency said the “Khayyam” satellite is fitted with a high-resolution camera. U.S. officials and some independent experts said it would dramatically improve Tehran’s ability to monitor sites, including potential military targets, in Israel and the wider Middle East.
Tal Inbar, a senior research fellow at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an American nonpartisan organization, said the satellite would be capable of providing far better images of the ground from space, representing a significant challenge for Israel, Iran’s longtime adversary.
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“Israel has long had such an observation capability, but as far as Iran is concerned, this is a real breakthrough — for the first time an Iranian owns and operates a satellite with a high imaging resolution, much better than what they had until now,” Mr. Inbar said. “From now on, Iran will be able to collect much more accurate intelligence information for military operations of their forces as well as for the organizations they support.”
It will also be able to serve real-time operations by Iran or the militias it supports, he said.
“This is a significant narrowing of the technological gap between Iran, and Israel and the United States,” Mr. Inbar said.
The Iranian space agency insisted that the satellite would not be used for military purposes, saying in a statement on Aug. 7 that it was intended for agricultural programs, water resources and other environmental applications. But analysts affiliated with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards force posted messages on social media boasting that the satellite gives Iran the ability to monitor American military bases and Israel from space.
“A country’s path to developing native satellites cannot be stopped or denied,” the Iranian space agency said in a statement. “The same is true for international cooperation. This will turn Iran’s space industry into one that exports,” it added.
A Soyuz rocket carrying the “Khayyam” satellite into orbit lifted off from the Russian-run Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan just before 9 a.m. Iranian scientists took control of the satellite immediately after the launch, the agency said, and no other nation would have access to the information it gathered.
According to Russian news reports last week, Roscosmos said that Russian companies built the satellite for Iran. The Russian embassy in Tehran said in a post on its Instagram account that the satellite was ordered by Iran and built by Russia and that it was designed for nonmilitary purposes.
Iran relied on Russian expertise because until now, it had only launched satellites that weighed less than 50 kilograms, about 110 pounds, and Khayyam weighs nearly half a ton, according to Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.
“Today is a turning point for the start of a new interaction in the field of space between our two countries,” Isa Zarepour, the Iranian minister for communications and information technology, said in a statement.
Although negotiations over the launch preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it comes less than a month after President Vladimir V. Putin visited Tehran in his quest to show that Western sanctions imposed over the war had failed to isolate his country.
Iran has long experience with evading Western sanctions, and the U.S. says Tehran has offered to sell Russia drones for use in Ukraine and other equipment using technology that Western nations are no longer selling to Moscow.
Iranfirst launched its own domestically produced satellite into orbit in 2009, and its still-young space program has had a shaky history. In the decade after its first launch, some 67 percent of Iranian orbital launches failed, compared to a 5 percent failure rate worldwide for similar space launches.
The satellite launched Tuesday was named after Omar Khayyam, the renowned medieval Persian scientist and poet. The Baikonur facility has been used for space launches for decades, and was inaugurated when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.