The Trump administration placed new sanctions on Iran’s space agency Tuesday, saying it was developing ballistic missiles surreptitiously under the guise of a program purported to launch satellites.
The State Department designation, the first ever imposed on the Iran Space Agency and two affiliated research institutes, was another step up in tensions between Tehran and Washington. The animosity has grown exponentially since the United States withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year and began a diplomatic and economic pressure campaign, accusing Iran of working undercover to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads over a long distance.
“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the sanctions.
“These designations should serve as a warning to the international scientific community that collaborating with Iran’s space program could contribute to Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon delivery system,” he added.
The sanctions came a few days after a rocket exploded at the Imam Khomeini Space Center on Thursday. Iranian officials said the explosion was caused by a technical malfunction. President Donald Trump declared that the United States had nothing to do with the explosion and tweeted an apparent surveillance photo of the damage.
Pompeo said the incident during an attempted launch of a satellite into orbit “underscores the urgency of the threat.”
The Iranian government says it is working to launch satellites, including for communications purposes, but its tests have resulted in explosions several times.
The United States considers satellite launches a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to shun the development of ballistic missiles that could be equipped with nuclear weapons.
A fact sheet from the State Department said the technologies used in developing space launch vehicles are “virtually identical and interchangeable” with those used in ballistic missiles.
The new sanctions could be used as a foundation for imposing penalties on foreign companies and governments that do any business with the Iran Space Agency.