The Iranian-Saudi Conflict and the Regional Space Race

Both Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s space programs have made the news lately. While Tehran failed to launch two satellites into orbit in less than a month, Riyadh successfully launched its first communications satellite

Iranian satellite launch (Archive photo: AP)

The Middle East is characterized by conflicts between regional powers. The space race is part of the competition for regional dominance and considered as a fundamental component of national security. Iran is one of only about ten countries in the world that is capable of building their own satellites, launching them from their territories, and maneuvering them in space.

Iran has said that it plans to send two satellites – Payam (Farsi for Message) and Doosti (= Friendship) – into space. On January 15, 2019, Iran failed to put into orbit the Payam satellite after it was unable to reach the required velocity. Iranian Communications Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari said the rocket carrying the satellite “failed to reach the required speed in the third stage, even though it succeeded in the first two stages of the launch.”

On February 6, 2019, Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite US criticism that its space program helps it develop ballistic missiles. Satellite imagery of a space launch center in northern Iran suggests that the second attempt has also failed. Satellite images released on February 6, 2019, showed a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province. Images from next day showed the rocket was gone with what appears to be burn marks on its launch pad. Iran has not acknowledged conducting such a launch.

On February 16, 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif revealed that his country failed again to launch a satellite into space. Speaking to NBC News, he said that it was the second failed attempt in the past two months.

Iran usually displays space achievements in February during the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year’s 40th anniversary comes amid increasing pressure from the US under the administration of President Donald Trump.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Iran’s plans for sending satellites into orbit demonstrate the country’s defiance of a UN Security Council resolution that calls on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Saudi Launches Communications Satellite

Iran’s adversary, Saudi Arabia, has boosted efforts to expand its space program through the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Unlike Iran, Riyadh has no budgetary constraints impeding its long-term space ambitions and can rely on the support of the United States, France, China, and Russia.

On February 5, 2019, Saudi Arabia successfully launched the first Saudi communications satellite (SGS-1). The operation was carried out by Arianespace. The satellite was launched from the Guiana Space Center on an Ariane 5 rocket, which also carried into orbit the GSAT-31 satellite for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), as well as the Hellas Sat 4 (HS-4). GSAT-31 and SGS-1-HS-4 are designed to operate for at least 15 years, Arianespace representatives said.

A team from the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) developed the satellite in collaboration with Lockheed Martin. The SGS-1 is said to provide secure communications, internet connectivity and television signal across the region. Ground stations in Saudi Arabia, which will be operated and controlled by Saudi national personnel,   will operate and control the satellite.

The Saudi communications satellite employs hybrid (electric and chemical) propelling systems which have helped to reduce the satellite’s weight to 6.5 tons while increasing its life expectancy to over 20 years. It also uses advanced technologies enabling it to provide highly secured and anti-interference telecommunications.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the development in 2018 and placed a signed letter, headed “above the clouds” to be placed inside the rocket before takeoff.

Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin International, Richard Edwards, lauded his company’s strategic partnership with Riyadh, saying: “The successful launch is the first step in our unique partnership with KACST and Saudi Arabia, which is established on innovation, science, technology and human resources development.”


Iran's space program is authorized and guided over the long term by a Supreme Space Council, which reports to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.

Iran, which considers its space program a matter of national interest and pride, has said the launches and missile tests were not violations and would continue.

Iranian officials often discuss space and missile developments simultaneously, perhaps indicating the parallel nature of the program. They have openly admitted that the Shahab missile system has been used as the basis for Iran’s space launch vehicle.

The US and its allies worry the same satellite-launching technology could be used to develop long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.

In Saudi Arabia, the space project is part of the kingdom’s Saudi Vision 2030 that aims to diversify the economy away from oil and to localize strategic technologies in the Kingdom. The Kingdom seeks through the space and aeronautical technology program to achieve a regional leadership in this vital sector relying on its preeminent position and vital capabilities that will allow the country to obtain its objective. KSA Space Program should serve the national needs and sustainable development and contribute to the transformation to a knowledge-based society.

The most ambitious space program within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been launched by the UAE government. The UAE has expressed growing interest in space in recent years, establishing a national space agency and funding satellite projects, in addition to its planned human spaceflight program. The country is also working on a Mars orbiter mission called “Hope” that is scheduled to launch in 2020 to study the Martian atmosphere. The country’s investments in space technologies have already exceeded $5.4 billion.


[Sources: Al Arabiya, NPR, Asharq Al Awsat, The National,, the Official Portal of the UAE Government]

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