The undeclared war between Iran and Israel has reached new heights.
Or more specifically, a height of 270 miles, which is the altitude of Iran's first spy satellite. It's more than a nice vantage point for Iran to keep an eye on its arch-enemy Israel. Lacking advanced reconnaissance aircraft and drones to penetrate Israeli air defenses, a satellite may be the only way for Tehran to gather real-time intelligence on Israel.
Which raises the question: will Israel be tempted to destroy Iran's eye in the sky?
While Iran's space agency has previously placed communications and civilian imaging satellites into orbit, the Noor spy satellite launched on April 22 from the Shahroud missile range in northeast Iran is an explicitly military project run by the hardline IRGC. The satellite's Low Earth Orbit (LEO) path takes it over North Africa and the central Mediterranean (you can see the current orbital track here), which puts Israel within a space camera's field of vision.
For a beleaguered Iranian regime caught between U.S. economic sanctions and the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Noor was a reminder to domestic and international foes that the regime has muscle. More ominously, the satellite was lofted atop a three-stage Qased ("messenger") rocket that reportedly combines both solid and liquid fuel propulsion, which suggests that Iran has the potential to develop solid-fueled, nuclear-tipped ICBMs to replace cumbersome liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.
Just as the beep-beep-beeping of Sputnik in 1957 announced the Soviet Union was a technological power, Noor is a signal that Iran is a player to be reckoned with. "Today we watch the Earth from the sky, and this is proof that a global power is in the making," proclaimed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Hossein Salami.
To be fair, Noor is technologically unimpressive compared to other satellites. As a precursor to a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the Qased rocket has such limited capacity that it can only deliver a satellite into low orbit rather than a higher vantage point for surveilling the Earth, Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted. More important, it's too small to carry a nuclear warhead.
Yet Iran's space shot deserved better than to be dismissed by U.S. officials as a useless "tumbling webcam in space." Recall that the early American satellite launches of the 1950s exploded on the launch pad, but NASA still managed to land humans on the Moon a decade later.
A satellite passing over Israel every couple of hours could provide useful real-time intelligence.
For Iranian strategists, the celestial snoop is heaven-sent. Iran has a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles aimed at enemies such as Israel, while its proxy Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets in Lebanon, including GPS-guided weapons and newly developed kits that convert unguided rockets into smart munitions. What Iran and Hezbollah lack is real-time intelligence for targeting those missiles, but a satellite passing over Israel every couple of hours could provide updated imagery of Israeli troop movements, airbases and critical infrastructure.
Yet unfortunately for Tehran, Israel has an even more advanced space program that has already placed spy satellites in orbit, developed interceptors that can shoot down ballistic missiles and even conducted a near-successful attempt to land an unmanned probe on the Moon. So far, only the U.S., Russia, China and India have demonstrated anti-satellite weapons. But if a nation can launch a satellite, it can also figure out how to shoot one down. Indeed, in 2009, Israeli officials raised the possibility that the Arrow 3 – an interceptor that can shoot down ballistic missiles streaking through outer space – could be turned into an anti-satellite weapon.
Should a major clash erupt between Israel and Iran or Israel and Hezbollah – or even if there are ominous signs that a war might be coming – Israel might be tempted to neutralize Iranian satellites. However, destroying a nation's satellite is an act of war. Indeed, in 2018, the Trump administration indicated that an attack on American satellites could be grounds for nuclear retaliation.
Iran has endured Mossad assassinations on Iranian soil, airstrikes on its forces in Syria and possibly even Israeli F-35 stealth fighters flying over its territory. But destroying a satellite like Noor might be an escalation from which Tehran couldn't back down.