PARIS — The two-year satellite frequency dispute that has pitted Iran and Saudi Arabia against France and Qatar has taken an unexpected turn with protests over Iranian satellite broadcasts into Bahrain and Iran’s apparent inability to fill an orbital slot with its own satellite.

The dispute is primarily between satellite operators but also involves the governments that represent them before international satellite frequency and orbital-slot regulators.

The Arabsat organization of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007 leased capacity aboard its Badr-5 satellite, located at 26 degrees east, to the Iran Space Agency. Iran has used this lease to buttress its claims to international regulators that Iran’s Zohreh-2 satellite system has been “brought into use” and deserves regulatory recognition.

Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, whose aging Eutelsat 25A spacecraft is just a half-degree away at 25.5 degrees east, has argued that Iran long ago lost its Zohreh-2 rights when it did not occupy the system’s assigned orbital slot within the deadline specified by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Eutelsat and the Qatar Satellite Co., Es’hailSat, have co-invested in a large satellite, called Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1, that is scheduled for launch into the 25.5 degree slot in mid-2013.

Badr-5 and Eutelsat 25A are already interfering with one another. Once Eutelsat 25B/Es’hailSat 1 is in place, frequency interference between Eutelsat and Arabsat will only increase, government and industry officials said.

A conference of ITU governments in February urged the opposing parties to accept a compromise under which Arabsat and Eutelsat would evenly split the disputed frequencies.

The Geneva-based ITU has sought to mediate negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement, with no success.

Industry observers had speculated that the likelihood of finding a compromise acceptable to all parties increased when France backed the ITU’s February decision to give Iran a second chance to use a long-expired authorization to put its Zohreh-1 network into service at 34 degrees east.

The ITU gave Iran until July 14 to find an aging satellite and move it into the slot, thereby activating the Zohreh-1 service. But Iran, in part because of a Western embargo on commercial dealings with Iranian organizations, has been unable to purchase an in-orbit satellite and the 34-degree slot remains vacant with just a month before the ITU-granted deadline expires.

In the meantime, Arabsat is facing difficulties as a result of its lease to Iran that do not come from Eutelsat or France or Qatar.

In the context of the Arab Spring movement that has shaken numerous Arab governments, Bahrain — an Arabsat shareholder and customer — has announced it is canceling its leases on an Arabsat satellite to protest Iranian broadcasts into Bahrain from Badr-5.

Bahrain has said the Iranian programs have exacerbated sectarian tensions in Bahrain.

On June 9, Arabsat issued a statement saying it is an innocent bystander to “political and religious debates. Arabsat has nothing to do with it.”

Bahrain and all other Arabsat shareholders approved the Iranian lease contract in 2007, which led to Arabsat’s order of  the Badr-5 satellite,  launched in mid-2010, Arabsat said in its statement.

Arabsat further said the Iranian broadcast beams are trained on Iran only. Arabsat admitted that some of the broadcasts might be picked up outside Iran by users with large dish antennas. To reduce this, Arabsat said, it is reducing the signal strength of the Iranian programming.

Arabsat said that after “strenuous, unpublicized efforts with the Iranian side,” it has persuaded Iran to remove the Al-Alam channel from its Badr-5 lineup. Al-Alam was the channel that had most upset Bahraini authorities.

Bahrain’s move to dissociate itself from Arabsat has “reached a far point of unreality,” Arabsat said, especially given that the same Iranian broadcasts are available throughout the Arab world via satellites operated by Nilesat of Egypt and by Eutelsat.

Arabsat, through the Saudi government, has told the ITU that the satellite operator has suffered millions of dollars in lost revenue because of the interference between the Badr-5 and Eutelsat 25A satellites. The Iranian government, in a May 5 letter to the ITU, says it has sustained “a huge loss” because Eutelsat 25A has prevented Iran from fully using its Badr-5 capacity.

Since the ITU meeting in February, Arabsat and Iran have complained to the international regulatory body that France and Eutelsat have been unwilling to meet to craft a compromise along the 50-50 split the ITU proposed.

Eutelsat officials have said they view the compromise as unfair given what Eutelsat views as a long history of Iran’s playing fast and loose with ITU rules with respect to Zohreh-2. Arabsat maintains that at one point, before it found a home on Badr-5, the Zohreh-2 network was broadcast over a Eutelsat satellite. Eutelsat denies this.

On June 12, Arabsat sent an email to the ITU saying the company and the Saudi government are prepared to accept the ITU’s proposal that it meet with France and Eutelsat in mid-July. The email, endorsed by the Iranian government June 13, said that if Eutelsat does not show up for the meeting, Saudi Arabia and Iran would withdraw their support for the 50-50 compromise and ask the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board to settle the matter.

Eutelsat Deputy Chief Executive Michel Azibert said June 15 that Eutelsat will be attending the July meeting in Geneva and is willing to negotiate with Arabsat on the basis of a 50-50 division of the disputed frequencies. In an interview, Azibert nonetheless said Eutelsat and Arabsat have been unable to reach a settlement in part because not all the frequencies have the same commercial value to the two satellite operators.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.