Sneaky satellites and universities behaving badly

With all of the current excitement over Iran’s nuclear program and the extension of talks for a comprehensive deal Redline is feeling that Iran’s ballistic missile and aerospace efforts are neglected. It’s sad to think that there may be disillusioned missile researchers and university students across Iran, thinking ‘nobody cares about my super cool satellite project’. Well, disillusioned students, Redline cares. Redline cares a lot. Redline cared enough to poke around Iran’s satellite research and development efforts, and found something very interesting.

Iran loves space, and has blasted worms, turtles and monkeys up there with the help of satellites. Iran has launched 4 satellites into space using its Safir Space Launch Vehicle (SLV), and is developing another SLV called the Simorgh (سیمرغ). The love of satellites has hit Iran’s academic sector hard, and these days your university isn’t cool unless there’s a satellite research program in the aerospace or mechanical engineering faculties. In fact, a basic google search on Iranian satellite research and development will tell you that most Iranian technical universities either have sent satellites into space, or are developing satellites to send into space.

You may have seen in the news in January that Iran’s space program has been cancelled. But worry not, noble followers – on 2 Feb, Iran launched a Fajr (فجر) satellite into space . I’m guessing that means the space program may not have been cancelled after all. Maybe the problem was just a temporary monkey shortage.

Now, several of those universities – including Amirkabir University of Technology (AKUT) (دانشگاه صنعتي امیرکبیر), Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST) (دانشگاه علم و صنعت ايران) and Malek-Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) (دانشگاه صنعتي مالک اشتر) are involved in a project to design, develop and produce a constellation of 14 satellites, with the aim of establishing comprehensive satellite coverage of Iran. This project sounds good and fun, until you dig a little deeper into who is funding and controlling it.

The project – known as SMAT – was commissioned by Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) (وزارت دفاع و پثتیبانی نیروهای مسلح) and is being administered by Iran’s Defense and Research Innovation Organisation (SPND) (سازمان پژوهش و نواوري دفاعي). Even Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (محسن فخری زاده), supreme overlord of SPND, has been involved in SMAT, making sure it has been allocated as a project to SPND.

Redline had a look at the universities involved in SMAT, just to see whether any of our old SPND favourites have been involved. And guess what we found? A current faculty member in IUST’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, with lots of helpful references to satellite structural design on his university profile, is none other than Kamran Daneshjou (also spelled Daneshjoo) (کامران دانشجو). For those of you that aren’t currently leaning back in your chair with shocked expressions on your faces and half chewed food hanging out of your mouths, let me explain.

Before Iran’s nuclear weapons activity was halted in late-2003, Fakhrizadeh was the head of what is essentially an early and unambiguously nuclear weapons-research version of SPND, known as AMAD . Under AMAD sat Project 111, which aimed to integrate a nuclear warhead into the nose of a Shahab-3 missile. Warhead integration is extremely finicky and complicated, and requires a good set of brains. The head of the Project 111 brains was likely none other than Kamran Daneshjou, who at the time was the head of AMAD’s Center of R&D of Advanced Aeronautical Technologies.

Danshjou is a personal favorite of mine, for a slightly more amusing reason. In 2013, as Iran’s Minister for Science, Research and Technology, Daneshjou – who famously supports gender segregation at Iranian universities – was caught on camera having some rather steamy kisses in an elevator with the Director of the National Museum of Iran…oops!

Daneshjou has also been accused of plagiarising South Korean research and calling it his own – he isn’t exactly Iran’s most ethical man.

Daneshjou has been sanctioned by the EU, Canada and Australia, in recognition of his contribution to Iran’s nuclear and warhead integration efforts. Unfortunately, Redline isn’t in a position to comment on any trouble caused by his naughty canoodling and copy+paste shenanigans. However these days, Daneshjou is absolutely based at IUST, in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, writing nifty articles about satellites. Is this an amazing coincidence? Or is it possible that maybe Daneshjou is involved in the SMAT project, putting his satellite-related knowledge to very good use?

So ok, hang on. What is SPND doing building communications satellites? And why is there potentially an AMAD bigwig involved? The boring among us might just say, ‘well, it’s obvious from previous Redline articles that SPND is unpopular and has no money, so maybe they’re just desperate to stay relevant in these increasingly constrained times?’ Yeah, ok. I get that.

However, because Redline is not boring and I don’t think that SPND is just trying to stay relevant, let’s entertain another theory.

Remember this Redline article about Iran’s ICBM program and how most sneaky ICBM-related work can be cleverly disguised as satellite research? Yup. I have a hunch that the SMAT project might be awfully aligned with the exact research and development work that is needed to produce ICBMs. Let’s just pause here for a second to reflect on the scary fact that Daneshjou used to be the guy in charge of fitting the small red ball into the pointy bit on top of a big rocket. And now, he is working in the same faculty at the same university that’s building engines for big rockets that we suspect have one very missile-y purpose. And that, folks, is enough to get any self-respecting counter proliferation enthusiast hot under the collar.

So, the question is – and happy for anyone to volunteer an answer here – why are Iran’s best and most respected universities willingly working with SPND and MODAFL on dodgy ICBM projects? Maybe they’re feeling a tad under-sanctioned. At the moment, IUST isn’t sanctioned at all, and AKUT is only sanctioned by Australia (?!). MUT, on the other hand, is subordinate to MODAFL, and is therefore sanctioned by everyone (the UN under UNSCR 1929, and autonomously by the EU, US, Canada and Australia).

If Iran is going to keep making a habit of using universities as a base for sensitive research of behalf of SPND and co, it might be worth us digging a little deeper into what AKUT, IUST and MUT are really up to…

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