Iran Finds a Placeholder Satellite for Contested Geostationary Slot

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PARIS — The Iranian government has found a satellite operator willing to lease or sell it an in-orbit telecommunications satellite to move to an orbital slot to which Iranian rights expired in July, the Iranian government has told international regulators.

The status of Iran’s claim to the slot, at 34 degrees east, will be decided the week of Sept. 10 at a meeting in Geneva of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Radio Regulations Board, which will have final say on whether Iran should be given yet another chance to fill the long-vacant position.

In a document sent to the ITU to prepare for the board meeting, Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in effect asks international regulators for one last indulgence on the 34-degree slot, saying its efforts in recent months to buy or lease a satellite have been blocked by what Iran calls an “Exceptional Prevailing Circumstance.” The circumstance is the U.S.-coordinated embargo on all commercial transactions with the government of Iran given that nation’s ongoing nuclear program and its public threats against the state of Israel.

“This administration investigated all options” to find a compatible satellite since ITU nations in February agreed to give Iran until July 14 to fill the slot or have the Iranian license withdrawn, Iran said in the document to the ITU. “[T]here were several options identified but due to the ‘Exceptional Prevailing Circumstance,’ very few options were available. … Negotiations with [an unnamed operator] commenced, but were inconclusive and thus aborted again due to the above-mentioned ‘Exceptional Prevailing Circumstance’ … which blocked all possible paths and options.”

Iran for years has stated its intention to develop its Zohreh satellite system at orbital slots located at 34 degrees east and around 26 degrees east. The second slot is the subject of a separate dispute in which Iran and Saudi Arabia, through the Riyadh-based Arabsat organization, have said Iran’s Zohreh-2 network is now operating on an Arabsat satellite.

Eutelsat of Paris has said the Iran/Arabsat system is in violation of ITU regulations and that it will interfere with a coming satellite to be launched by Eutelsat with the government of Qatar. The ITU will hear a separate Iranian argument the week of Sept. 10 relating to this dispute.

Zohreh-1 is what Iran calls its proposed satellite network at 34 degrees east. It is years behind schedule and the ITU had already decided to cancel it when, in February, the World Radiocommunication Conference of ITU governments decided to reinstate Iran’s license on the condition that it actually placed at the slot a satellite operating in the reserved frequencies by July 14.

The decision was controversial given the ITU’s long-stated priority of establishing order over orbital positions and broadcast frequencies, which are considered a global commons belonging to no one and whose supply is limited by the laws of physics.

The ITU and government and industry officials said at the time that the organization’s global membership is reluctant to remove an orbital slot from “a developing country,” which is how Iran describes itself in ITU correspondence, given these nations’ need to build their communications grids.

“The cancellation of the satellite network of Iran, as a developing country with a large population and territory, could have [an] adverse effect on its development and [on] bridging the digital divide, which are enshrined in the objectives and purposes” of the ITU, Iran said in its statement.

Government and industry officials at the time speculated that France had acceded to the Iranian request regarding 34 degrees east as a goodwill gesture that could ease the way for a compromise on the thornier issue of 26 degrees east. If this was the motivation, there has been no evidence that it has achieved its intention, government and industry officials said. The dispute over 25.5/26 degrees east appears no nearer to resolution.

Under normal circumstances, a nation as rich as Iran would have little trouble in finding a satellite owned by another fleet operator that is more or less compatible with its registered frequencies, nearing retirement and available for sale or lease.

But with the tightening U.S.-led embargo, satellite operators with available spacecraft have been loath to deal with Iran, especially since the direct counterpart would be the Iranian government.

In its statement to the ITU, Iran said that as of early June it had found a willing seller and began negotiations in earnest. The statement said the government regulating the satellite’s operator has endorsed the transaction and is ready to permit the operator to drift its satellite along the geostationary arc 36,000 kilometers over the equator to the 34 degrees east position.

Iran said it will need several months to finalize the transaction and begin moving the satellite. “In order to preserve fuel and not excessively reduce the satellite’s lifetime by rapid movement, the relocation takes time,” it said in the statement.

In the document, Iran does not identify the satellite or operator in question, but promises that the memorandum of understanding covering the transaction will be made available to ITU officials, “subject to the agreement of the entities concerned.” A formal contract is being concluded “in the country of the satellite operator,” it said.

One official familiar with ITU procedures said that while Radio Regulation Board meetings are often unpredictable, it would be surprising if the board were to grant Iran another deadline extension given the terms set by the World Radiocommunication Conference earlier this year.

Iran’s statement asks the board members to put themselves in Iran’s place and to recognize “the unique and particular circumstance that it faces due to the force majeure [resulting from] the prevailing circumstances that this administration is facing, and respectfully expects [the board] to recognize such difficulties and favorably consider all the efforts made for expanding the satellite communication infrastructures for the benefit of the nation.”

Iran said it will need a six-month deadline extension, to Feb. 14, to put the unidentified satellite into place.

 

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