Satellite imagery broadcast on CNN on Tuesday January 7, showed Iran apparently preparing to launch a remote-sensing satellite into the space.
Researchers at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told CNN that "The high-resolution satellite images, captured by Planet Labs on January 4, 6 and 7, show activity at the Imam Khomeini Space Center consistent with steps that were taken prior to a previous launch in 2017."
News of the preparation for missile launch was disseminated by various Iranian media outlets last week, however, the imagery came as a surprise as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said that using ballistic missile technology needed to send the satellite into orbit could lead to more U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is "called upon" to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.
The researchers who provided the satellite imagery to CNN believed the missile which is to carry the Iranian satellite is a Simorgh class missile, "a two-stage space launch vehicle that uses a cluster of four Shahab-3 engines in its first stage and smaller steering engines in its upper stage."
Recent statements by Iranian officials indicate that they could be adamant to continue their defiant behavior. "Iran will continue with its aerospace program despite U.S. warnings," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, adding there was "no international law prohibiting such a program."
Zarif, who is visiting New Delhi, also told Reuters that leaving a 2015 nuclear deal agreed with world powers is an option available with Tehran but is not the only option on the table.
He made the statement while until recently Iranian officials were keen to persuade the EU to take an initiative to facilitate Iran's foreign trade in a bid to keep Iran in the deal in spite of U.S. sanctions.
Meanwhile, in a speech on January 8, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei showed more signs of defiance. Speaking on U.S. sanctions, Khamenei said, just as sanctions during the war with Iraq in the 1980s "resulted in the flourishing of our domestic potentials in a way that today we are leading in our region in terms of defensive capabilities, by the Grace of God, we will surmount this stage, too. Just as [former Iraqi leader] Saddam was sent to hell, our enemies will also be sent to hell."
Elsewhere in the speech Khamenei's ridiculed U.S. officials’ insight, and dubbed some of them "first-class idiots" as he mocked them for predicting the collapse of the Islamic Republic.
"Some U.S. officials pretend that they are mad. Of course I don't agree with that, but they are first-class idiots," he said in a speech in Tehran, quoted on his official Twitter feed.
Taking on some U.S. officials including National Security Adviser John Bolton who had predicted there would be a regime change in Iran before the end of 2018, Khamenei said, "A while ago, a US politician had said, among a gathering of terrorists and thugs that he hopes to celebrate this Christmas in Tehran," Khamenei said, according to his Twitter feed.
"Christmas was a few days ago. This is how US calculations work," he said.
Nevertheless, prior signs in the past two weeks showed that Khamenei was worried about the overall dire situation Iran faces and warned state officials in December about the United States' plans for a possible regime change in 2019.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that what they want is "a change in Tehran's behavior" rather than a regime change.
But the fact remains that according to Iran's parliament, the country faces a deep recession with 3.5-5 percent negative growth.
It is hard to say why Iran suddenly appears more confident this week. Two possible explanations can be offered. First, the Islamic Republic might have been heartened by the confusion surrounding U.S. policy in Syria and possible troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. There also seems to be a rift with Erdogan over U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria.
The other possibility is that they know they are in a weak position economically and the people are becoming increasingly restless and they want to show self-confidence and strength to deter any internal breakdown. There is little doubt that even within the regime there are more signs of discord among top officials.
Some statements even by senior ayatollahs show there is soul searching going on, as many are asking what has gone wrong.