US sabotage may be behind Iran's embarrassing rocket launch failures

  • The US has been secretly sabotaging Iranian missiles and rockets, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
  • In the past month, Iran has twice tried to launch a satellite. Both attempts ended in failure. In fact, since the covert program began, 67 per cent of Iran’s orbital launches have failed.
  • Since the George W. Bush administration, the US has reportedly been slipping sabotaged parts and materials into key factories and supply lines, and this operation has apparently yielded some success.

Iran tried twice in the past month to launch a satellite into space. Both attempts ended in failure, and it may not be an accident, a new report has suggested.

The US has been secretly sabotaging Iranian missiles and rockets for years, the New York Times reported Wednesday, citing half a dozen current and former officials. Since the program began a little over a decade ago, 67 per cent of Iran’s orbital launches have failed. The global failure rate for similar launches is only 5 per cent.

Started during George W. Bush’s presidency, the top secret program reportedly slips problematic parts and materials into essential factories and supply chains. While it is difficult to verify the effectiveness of this sabotage operation, the US has had some reported successes with these so-called “left of launch” tactics.

In one incident, a short-range Iranian-made missile landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone but failed to detonate. Sabotaged components were discovered inside when experts opened the weapon up to examine it, officials told the Times’ David E. Sanger and William J. Broad.

Iran has long faced tough sanctions, forcing it to rely on subpar suppliers for critical components. These targets have proven easier to infiltrate.

Given the secrecy surrounding these operations and the nature of the targets, it is extremely difficult to say which failures are the result of normal malfunctions and which are caused by US tampering. Either way, the US remains very interested in the program, perhaps more so under the current administration.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been on the rise, and the program has reportedly accelerated under the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump took note of the failed satellite launch in January, stating that had it not failed, it might have provided Iran with “critical information” that the country “could use to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and a capability, actually, of reaching the United States.”

“We’re not going to have that happen,” he said.

The president’s delivered his remarks as his administration unveiled the Missile Defence Review. He stressed that the US is ready to “detect and destroy every type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch.”

Iran insists that its space launch activities are unrelated to its missile program. The country launched its first satellite in 2009, and it followed that up with three more successful launches in 2011, 2012, and 2015. Those four successful launches were out of a dozen tries, the Times reported, citing the recent observations of Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

In one case in 2012, a rocket exploded on the launchpad, causing extensive damage that could be seen clearly in satellite images of the launch site.

The Times previously reported that the US used similar “left of launch” tactics, specifically cyber attacks, to target North Korea’s missile program. The report called attention to North Korea’s version of a Soviet missile. While the Soviet weapon had only a 13 per cent failure rate, the North Korean missile had a shocking failure rate of 88 per cent.

There has always been scepticism about whether or not the US was actually behind these failed tests. That is not to say the US hasn’t been trying to sabotage these programs; rather, it is simply unclear to what degree these programs actually work.

“I am mentioned [regarding] launch [statistics],” McDowell tweeted after the release of the report from The New York Times, “But, let me be clear that I do NOT believe the idea that Iranian space launch failures are due to US sabotage.”

Other experts have expressed suspicions that the US program may be ineffective.

There are many different ways a launch can go sideways, and it doesn’t take much, meaning that Iran could easily be behind its own problems.

The Times said government officials asked them to withhold some details from their reporting, including the identities of specific suppliers to Iran, which has long suspected that the US was sabotaging their operations.

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