Iran officially opened its new Imam Khomeini National Space Center with a bang, according to state media reports on July 27, by successfully launching its two-stage Simorgh rocket into space. Though Iranian state television showed footage of the rocket's liftoff, neither it nor other Iranian media offered details of the mission profile or of the Simorgh's payload. Iran previously has put several small satellites into orbit using a different rocket, but the Simorgh is designed to carry a satellite weighing up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) into an orbit 500 kilometers (310 miles) high. Whether the launch was a suborbital test of one or both of the Simorgh's stages, and what payload, if any, the rocket might have been carrying, awaits confirmation.
The launch had been in the works since at least late January, when Iran scrubbed a launch of the Simorgh for an unspecified reason. The July 27 launch is the second time that the Simorgh has flown and will add to tensions between the United States and Iran. The United States has long been concerned about the Simorgh and Iran's space program, which has ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Though its official purpose is to launch satellites, the space program allows the Iranians to gain experience in dual technologies that could be used to develop long-range ballistic missiles, and the Simorgh potentially could lead toward the production of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile.
Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile in late January, less than two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump's inauguration. The Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran in response. The U.S. pressure and criticism may have prompted Iran to cancel the Simorgh's January launch amid suggestions that the Iranians were trying to reduce tensions around their missile program during Trump's first months in office and in the months leading up to Iran's presidential election in May. While Trump has been sharply critical of Iran's missile tests, his administration nonetheless certified to the U.S. Congress this month that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, the provisions of which do not prohibit Iran's missile tests outright.
Clearly, the Trump administration would like to put additional pressure on Iran. With the latest launch of the Simorgh, Iran might be showing a greater willingness to test the Trump administration's resolve now that the Iranian presidential elections are over and the IRGC continues to clamor for Iran to display its strength to the West.