Lifting Sanctions May Help Russians Supply Spy Satellites to Iran

June 15, 2021

KIEV—If sanctions prohibiting the import of U.S. technology used in Russian satellites are lifted as part of a quid pro quo during this week’s summit between Russian president Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden, one consequence would be a major enhancement of Iran’s military.

On May 11, the Washington Post reported that Moscow was preparing to sell a surveillance satellite system to Iran. Three unnamed sources that spoke to the Post stated they had been briefed on the sale of the Russian-made space system, designated Kanopus-V.

This satellite would be launched from a Russian cosmodrome and fitted with some of the latest hardware developed by Moscow’s satellite industry that would permit Iran’s military to have continuous digital downloads of imagery of the oil and gas facilities of American allies in the Persian Gulf, military installations in Israel, and U.S. troop deployments in Iraq.

A Middle Eastern official who spoke to the Post said the Kanopus-V is "will allow Iran to maintain an accurate target bank and to update that target bank within a few hours" and on a daily basis.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been negotiating with Moscow since 2018 to acquire the Kanopus-V. The IRGC operates separately from Iran’s standard armed forces, employs overpowering high-technology surveillance apparatus against the Iranian population, and operates its own autonomous fleets of aircraft, armored vehicles, and air defense systems.

Three days before the Post article appeared, several Russian news agencies quoted the head of Russia’s Space Agency, Dmitri Rogozin, saying that production of several satellite systems could not be completed due to U.S. sanctions that prohibited microchips from being sold to Russia.

"We have more than enough booster rockets, but nothing for them to launch [into orbit]," said Rogozin.

These sanctions were enacted after Russia’s March 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its subsequent invasion of the Eastern Donbas Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Later sanctions prompted a 2018 report in the Russian press that specified high-technology firms that were targeted and blocked from acquiring microchips and other items needed for their production lines.

Among those listed were the two space-based sensor technology and satellite design entities identified as being the main suppliers for the Iranian system—NPK BARL and the Russian space research institute VNIIEM. The latter was originally the leader in the design of geosynchronous orbital systems.

"The fact that this sale to Iran is in process—and it is a big deal for the Russians—and that Rogozin is complaining about these sanctions on the eve of the [Putin-Biden] summit is not a coincidence," said one Moscow-based aerospace expert. "He would not be lamenting the lack of these microchips unless it was keeping Russia from concluding this sale."

At the summit Putin is expected to present Biden with a list of sanctions he would like to see lifted. In return he could promise not to invade Ukraine (which he appeared poised to do just this past April), propose a new negotiation process for resolving the conflict in the Donbas, and provide assurances for observing Washington’s "red lines" on cyberattacks.

Putin may also offer up the release of two Americans who are being held in prison in Russia—Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed—in exchange for other concessions. The two were both arrested on spurious charges and in suspicious circumstances that suggest their detainments were "stage managed." Whelan has already pleaded to Biden to use the 16 June summit to "bring this appalling case of hostage diplomacy to an end."

Ukraine and NATO intelligence sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon state that while Biden could ease tensions in this region, allowing Russia to acquire the microchips it needs would create an entirely new set of problems in a Middle East that has become far less stable than it was under his predecessor.

The IRGC’s mission includes backing of foreign Shiite militias and terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah. The January 2020 assassination by drone strike of IRGC major general Qassem Soleimani was ordered by then-president Donald Trump as a message for Iran to halt its backing of these rebel groups. The fear now is that the IRGC would provide data from this satellite surveillance system to Hezbollah and others.

"The situation in Ukraine is far from settled and for the western alliance to survive, some accommodation needs to be made to create a stable resolution," said one former NATO official. "But allowing Iran to acquire this Russian technology as part of the bargain seems like too great a risk."