Defining military activities in outer space: the launching of the Iranian satellite Nour 1

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The Iranian satellite, Nour 1, operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was launched on 22 April 2020. The US Space Force (USSF) tracked Nour 1 and its final stage in orbit and added orbital tracking data and orbital parameters for two objects from the launch, the satellite and the rocket third stage, independently confirming the result of the launch and confirming the altitude in the 400-450 km range. According to an interview with the IRGC Air Force Space Commander, the satellite has an imaging mission. It could be argued that in addition to Iran’s Space Agency (ISA), which has been known for years, the IRGC now also has a space programme.

In this post, we briefly discuss whether this launch is in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) adopted on 18 October 2015 and implemented on 16 January 2016; the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (UNSC Res. 2231), and the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) on peaceful uses of outer space. We highlight the specifics of the satellite and its potential capacities, as this information is necessary in addressing the broader legal implications.

We address the following points. First, while a launch vehicle can contribute to a ballistic missile programme, it does not directly follow that, if Iran has a launch capability, they automatically have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to a terrestrial target. Nevertheless, the IRGC announced Nour 1 as a military satellite. For this reason, we provide a short description of the satellite and its capacities. Second, with respect to the UNSC Res. 2231, which provides that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”, we point out different interpretations of whether Nour 1 falls under this category. Third, we briefly note that no rule of treaty or customary law prohibits a state from launching a satellite or acquiring the capability to do so.

It is worth noting that outer space law is the topic of more intense debates due to the increasing proposals for commercialisation of outer space, individual state legislation promoting extractive activities, including the Moon. In addition, this commentary is being written just after NASA announced the creation of the Artemis Accords, a new set of standards on how to explore the Moon. The terms of the Accords lay out how humanity will act on the Moon, including how to mine resources from the lunar surface and ways to protect heritage Apollo sites. The Artemis Accords are a reference to NASA’s Artemis program, an initiative to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. Arguably then, there is an increase in the need for regulatory reforms at the international level in reference to the uses of outer space, including military (see here) and commercial (see here) uses. As states continue to engage in unilateral activities, we wish to forward some insight on the significance of the Nour 1 launch.

What are the capacities of the Nour 1 satellite? The satellite was launched by a three stage launch vehicle, more advanced than the Safir first-generation rocket, which deployed Iran’s first civilian satellite Omid on 2 February 2009. The upper stages use solid propellant, while the standard lower stage long-range Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of 1200-2000 kilometres, still uses liquid. Solid propellant is preloaded at the factory, which allows for quicker, more covert launches. Because the launcher was a mobile Shahab-3 which only requires fuelling at the first stage, there was no launch umbilical tower – the tower of scaffolding frequently used to service a spacecraft on the launchpad – distinguishing it from Iran’s past “civilian” launches.

As transmissions from the satellite appear to be getting weaker its full capacities are not yet clear. The satellite is now known to be small (probably about 10 kg). Its imaging payload would be a small telescope that could give resolutions of about 5 to 10 metres (a bit worse than typical images in Google Earth satellite view). This conclusion on the resolution is based on similar size US satellites (which can get about 3 to 5 m at very best) and the assumption that Iranian camera tech might have lesser capacities (for instance, in comparison to the 0.2 metre resolution assumed for large US spy satellites). Nour 1 can gather intelligence in the sense that it can potentially see new buildings that were not there in older Google Earth images. It is not comparable to the high resolution spy satellites used by the US or the EU. Hence, while the stated intent is to image the Earth, the real intent arguably is to test systems for later, more capable satellites.

With this in mind, does the IRGC launch of Nour 1 violate the UNSC Res. 2231 and the JCPOA? Adopted in accordance with the UN Charter, UNSC Res. 2231 implements the JCPOA and imposes missile and arms-related restrictions. The Resolution was adopted with the aim of providing a comprehensive solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. It calls upon all member states, as well as other international actors, to support its implementation and to refrain from actions that undermine implementation of commitments under the JCPOA (para 2). One setback has been the decision of the United States to withdraw from this agreement. The reapplications of US sanctions on Iran and its commercial partners in the world, arguably puts into question either the validity of UNSC Res. 2231 or constitutes a material breach of the US obligations to comply with the decisions of the Security Council.

In general, there is no UNSC Resolution that bans Iran from launching satellites into orbit. The UNSC Res. 2231 does not restrict Iran’s rights and capacities to explore space for peaceful purposes. What made this launch different from previous ones was that it was not the civilian Iranian Space Agency but the IRGC that conducted it. This, in itself, is not unusual in the broader context of state activities in outer space. The border between ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ is a grey area because military technology was always central to the exploration of outer space. Hence, using space assets in the service of military is not a new initiative. The difference is whether we think of them as weapons or reconnaissance. Militaries are dependent on space for surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, navigation, meteorology, geodesy, and other activities. In addition, with the use by militaries of commercial technology, as indicated in the March 2019 SpaceX’s successful docking of a Dragon capsule with the International Space Station (ISS), there is a need for clarification of regulation of state and non-state (including commercial) actors in outer space.

Certainly, there is a broader geopolitical context to the launch of Nour 1. The biannual reports by the UN Secretary General have alleged that Iran is repeatedly violating non-nuclear provisions stipulated in UNSC Res 2231. On 27 July 2017 Iran tested its Simorgh space launch vehicle. In response, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom addressed a letter to the UN Security Council calling the test “a threatening and provocative step” and “inconsistent” with UNSC Res. 2231. The countries expressed their concern over the satellite launch vehicle test because it could help extend the range of Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Iran has stated that although there is technological overlap between space launches and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the aim of its space programme is not to pursue ICBM technology. It can be argued that the main criteria for defining a space object as a weapon in many instances, is merely the intent of use. As this is not something that is easily determined activities and events in outer space would need to be quantified as either intentionally or unintentionally performed to result in the loss, disruption, or degradation of another entity’s space service, including its capability, activity, or resources activities or more narrowly, as “non-aggressive”.

It is also important to note that the exact meaning of the UNSC Res. 2231 language “designed to be nuclear capable” is still debated, as documented in the Resolution 2231 reports. The prohibition in UNSC Res. 2231 on transferring ballistic missiles and related technology without Security Council approval is clear-cut and binding on Iran. Nevertheless, the present technical capacities of Nour 1 as described above do not, as such, clearly demonstrate a breach of UNSC Res. 2231.

How should we interpret the launch of Nour 1 in the context of the current international laws of Satellites and other Orbiting Objects? Article 4 of the OST only prohibits nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. States use reconnaissance satellites used for military spying purposes Nour 1 could be an Earth observation satellite or a type of an intelligence gathering system. The OST does not deal explicitly with reconnaissance activities carried on from space.

While the imaging capacities of Nour 1 are not yet clear, it is not, as such, in violation of OST or general international law. At present, the actual capacities of Nour 1 cannot be clearly interpreted as being in violation of UNSC Res. 2231 and JCPOA or general international law.

In the broader context of outer space activities, it is important to keep in mind that any establishment of military bases, installations or testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies is prohibited in international law. Any activity that involve such weapons and space objects need to comply with applicable international law. As further activities in outer space intensify, clearer interpretation of lex lata on military uses of outer space will be necessary.


Editor’s Note: This post has been edited after publication to remove an incorrect hyperlink.

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P. M Reynaud says

June 10, 2020

In your paper you write “ It is not comparable to the high resolution spy satellites used by the US or the EU“
The reference to the EU brings to a web page of the European Space Agency (ESA)
This is misleading:
1/ ESA is an intergovernmental organisation separate from the EU and with its own Member States and legal personality.
2/ESA’s High resolution missions are not “spy” satellites as the ESA Convention does not allow such activities.
3/ if you want to make reference to the EU you should then make reference to its specific programmes which have defence aspects and not to that of ESA.

I understand that there can be some confusion as ESA is being contracted by the EU to develop the EU’ s Galileo and Copernicus programmes but none of the misions listed on the link you give are linked to those EU programmes which are under the control of the EU not ESA.

I am sorry if my comment seems pedantic but from an international public law perspective it is very important to keep that distinction between both organisation when addressing a public which is not necessarily well versed in these aspects.

Kind Regards
Pierre Reynaud
Retired Head of the International Law Division of the European Space Agency in charge of Space law and EU law.

Elena Cirkovic says

June 11, 2020

Thank you very much for this very important clarification. Indeed, our reference was not to ESA, but the EU and its Member States. It is not pedantic at all, and very important for the general readership to not misunderstand.