Editorial | Iran Gets an Overdue Rebuff

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which occasionally invites criticism for failing to enforce its own regulatory rules, deserves credit for rejecting Iran’s bid to retain rights to a satellite orbital slot for which it has missed repeated utilization deadlines.

Iran for years has been promising to develop the 34 degrees east longitude orbital slot with its Zohreh-1 satellite system but has failed to make measurable progress toward that end. The ITU, a United Nations affiliate, had previously revoked Tehran’s rights to the slot, only to see them inexplicably reinstated early this year by delegates to the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference.

Having won the reprieve, Iran tried to find a satellite operator willing to occupy, if only temporarily, the slot on its behalf. Success would have enabled Iran to claim that it had fulfilled the ITU’s requirement for bringing the slot into service by a newly imposed July deadline and thereby retain its rights to the position.

Tehran’s efforts were stymied by the apparent unwillingness of any existing operator to sell or lease a spacecraft to a country whose nuclear program, bellicose rhetoric and suspected support for terrorist groups has made it the subject of international economic sanctions. Such is the plight of a nation that seems bent on threatening its neighbors.

Late this summer, just as the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board was preparing to meet to consider several satellite-related matters, Tehran said it had found an operator willing to make a satellite available. But when it came time to lay its cards on the table at the Sept. 10-14 meeting in Geneva, Iran came up empty, which is perfectly consistent with its penchant for double talk with ITU regulators.

Iran for some time has been playing what looks like a shell game with its proposed Zohreh-2 satellite system, claiming it brought Zohreh-2 into service at the 24 degrees east orbital slot using satellites leased from Intelsat and Arabsat. Although Arabsat says it is now hosting the service aboard one of its satellites, Intelsat says it never did any such thing, casting serious doubt on Iran’s assertion that it has met ITU service continuity requirements for the slot in question.

The Zohreh-2 controversy remains unresolved, even as Eutelsat and the Qatari government press ahead with plans for a satellite system nearby that likely will suffer interference from the Iranian service. The ITU, which is loath to challenge the word of a sovereign nation, no matter how specious, appears resigned to letting the companies and their sponsoring governments sort out the dispute amongst themselves.

It’s less than ideal, especially with the Eutelsat-Qatari satellite slated for launch early next year, but it’s not unusual either: The Radio Regulations Board also declined during the meeting to rule on a simmering orbital slot dispute between satellite operators SES of Luxembourg and Avanti Communications of Britain. The ITU will have to show more backbone in the future to avert chaos as more and more nations stake claims to the geostationary-orbit arc, the operating location of most telecommunications satellites. But in revoking Iran’s rights to 34 degrees east, the ITU has at least demonstrated that there are limits to its willingness to put up with shenanigans that make a mockery of its regulatory authority.