DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Satellite images of Iran showed a rocket at a desert launch pad. This was just as tensions continue to mount over Tehran's nuclear program.
Maxar Technologies images showed an Imam Khomeini Spaceport launch pad in Iran's rural Semnan region. This is the location of many failed attempts to place a satellite in orbit.
One set of images featured a rocket mounted on a transporter and preparing for liftoff. Later Tuesday afternoon, the rocket was seen on the tower.
Iran didn't confirm a launch at the spaceport, and the mission to the United Nations in New York was not confirmed.
According to the state-run IRNA news agency, Iran would likely have seven satellites made by itself ready for launch by March 2023. Unofficials from the Defense Ministry suggested that Iran could soon test its satellite-carrying, solid-fueled rocket called the Zuljanah.
Although it was not clear when the launch would occur, erecting rockets usually means that a launch is imminent. NASA fire satellites, which detect light flashes from space, didn't see any activity at the site on Tuesday night.
When asked about the preparations, U.S. Army Major. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson, stated that the U.S. military will continue to closely watch Iran's search for viable space launch technology as well as how it might relate to its overall missile program.
Lodewick stated that Iran's aggression, including the threat posed to its missile programs, remains a major concern for forces in the region.
Iran has launched several satellites into orbit over the past decade. In 2013, Iran also sent a monkey into space. However, the program has had some problems in recent years. Five failed launches have occurred for Simorgh, a type satellite-carrying rocket. Three researchers were also killed in a fire at Imam Khomeini Spaceport on February 2019, authorities stated.
The damage to the launch pad that was used for Tuesday's preparations is still visible from an August 2019 explosion, which even attracted the attention of President Donald Trump. Later, he tweeted what appeared to have been a classified surveillance photo of the launch failure. Satellite images from February suggest that a Zuljanah launch failed earlier in the year, but Iran didn't acknowledge it.
The failures of successive launches raised suspicions of outside interference in Iran’s program. Trump suggested this by tweeting that Trump "wasn't involved in the catastrophic accident." However, there has been no evidence to suggest foul play and space launches continue to be challenging for even the most successful programs in the world.
In April 2020, Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Another satellite was launched by the Guard this March from another location in Semnan, just east Iran's capital Tehran.
John Krzyzaniak (a research associate at The International Institute for Strategic Studies) said that Iran is likely preparing for the Zuljanah launch test launch based on the launch pad used. Based on activity at the site, Krzyzaniak suggested earlier this week that a launch is imminent.
Zuljanah is the name of the rocket. It comes from Imam Hussein's horse, who is the grandson and great-grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Iranian state television broadcast footage of the successful Zuljanah rocket launch in February 2021.
According to reports, the Guard saw one of its soldiers "martyred", in Semnan province, under unspecified circumstances. The Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry of Iran later claimed that the man was employed by them.
The United States claims that Iran's satellite launches violate a U.N. Security Council resolution. It has also called for Tehran to cease all activities related to ballistic missiles capable delivering nuclear weapons. According to the U.S. intelligence, the threat assessment for 2022, which was published in March, a satellite launch vehicle "shortens" the timeframe to an intercontinental missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons for Iran because it uses "similar technologies."
Iran has maintained its long-held position that it doesn't seek nuclear weapons. However, the country previously claimed that its rocket launches and satellite tests did not contain a military component. The U.S. intelligence services and the International Atomic Energy Agency have stated that Iran has abandoned an organized military nuclear programme in 2003.
Iran's preparations for a launch are likely to be made as tensions over Tehran's nuclear program have escalated in recent days. Iran has now stated that it will take down 27 IAEA surveillance cameras at its nuclear sites. This is because it now enriches more uranium than ever before to weapons-grade levels.
Both Iran and America insist that they will re-enter Tehran's 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers. This deal, which saw Iran drastically reduce its enrichment in return for lifting economic sanctions, was signed by both Iran and the U.S. Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the agreement in 2018, triggering a series attacks and confrontations that began in 2019 and continue into the administration Joe Biden.
Since March, talks in Vienna have been "paused" about the possibility of reviving this deal.
Analysts say Iran would still need to build a nuclear bomb if it wanted one, even though Tehran's advancements make it more difficult. Israel has repeatedly threatened to strike Iran preemptively in the past. This threat is already being used in recent killings of Iranian officials.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twiter.com/jongambrellAP.