A series of images showed a rocket on a transporter, preparing to be lifted and placed on a launch tower. A later image Tuesday afternoon showed the rocket apparently on the tower.
Iran has not acknowledged an upcoming spaceport launch and its mission to the United Nations in New York has not immediately responded to a request for comment.
However, the state-run IRNA news agency said in May that Iran would likely have seven home-made satellites ready for launch by the end of the Persian calendar year in March 2023. A Defense Ministry official also recently suggested that Iran may soon have its new solid – powered, satellite-carrying rocket called the Zuljanah.
It was not clear when the launch would take place, although setting up a rocket usually means a launch is imminent. NASA fire satellites, which detect flashes of light from space, didn’t immediately see any activity over the site late Tuesday night.
Asked about preparations, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the US is urging Iran to de-escalate the situation.
“Iran has consistently chosen to escalate tensions. It is Iran that has consistently chosen to take provocative actions,” Price said.
A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Army Major Rob Lodewick, said the U.S. military will “continue to closely monitor Iran’s pursuit of viable space launch technology and how it compares to progress in its overall ballistic missile program.”
“Iranian aggression, including the demonstrated threat posed by its various missile programs, remains a major concern for our armed forces in the region,” Lodewick said.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and sent a monkey into space in 2013. However, the program has had recent problems. There have been five launch failures in a row for the Simorgh program, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The launch pad used in Tuesday’s preparations is still scarred by an August 2019 explosion that even caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump. He later tweeted what appeared to be a secret surveillance photo of the failed launch. Satellite images from February pointed to a failed launch of the Zuljanah earlier this year, although Iran did not acknowledge it.
The successive failures raised suspicions of outside interference in Iran’s program, something Trump himself alluded to by tweeting at the time that the US was “not involved in the catastrophic accident.” However, no evidence has been provided to show foul play in any of the failures, and space launches remain a challenge even for the world’s most successful programs.
Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps unveiled its own secret space program in April 2020 by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guards launched another satellite in March at another location in Semnan province, just east of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Judging by the launch pad used, Iran is likely preparing to launch the Zuljanah test, said John Krzyzaniak, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Krzyzaniak suggested earlier this week that a launch was imminent based on activity on the site.
The rocket’s name, Zuljanah, comes from the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Iranian state television broadcast images of a successful launch of Zuljanah in February 2021.
The launch preparations also come as the Guards reportedly “tortured” one of its soldiers over the weekend under unclear circumstances in Semnan province. However, Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics later claimed that the man worked for it.
The United States has claimed that Iranian satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution and called on Tehran not to engage in any activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The US intelligence agency’s 2022 threat analysis, published in March, claims that such a satellite launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran because it uses “similar technologies”.
Iran, which has long said it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously claimed that its satellite launches and missile tests have no military component. US intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
Iran’s likely preparations for a launch, however, come as tensions have increased in recent days over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran now says it will remove 27 IAEA surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites as the uranium enriches more closely than ever at the weapons level.
Both Iran and the US insist they are ready to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran’s world powers, in which the Islamic Republic drastically cut its enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018, triggering a series of attacks and clashes that began in 2019 and continue today in President Joe Biden’s administration.
Talks in Vienna about reviving the deal have been ‘paused’ since March.
Building an atomic bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past that it would launch a preemptive strike to stop Iran — and is already suspected of a string of recent assassinations of Iranian officials.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twiter.com/jongambrellAP.