FPI Bulletin: Iran-North Korea Cooperation May Sabotage Nuclear Deal

June 2, 2015

Growing cooperation between Iran and North Korea suggests that Tehran may develop a nuclear weapon with support from Pyongyang despite ongoing negotiations with the P5+1. Accordingly, the United States must seek to prohibit any form of nuclear cooperation between the two regimes as part of a final nuclear agreement, and challenge their broader goal of undermining U.S. global leadership.

The 30-year relationship between Tehran and Pyongyang reflects both shared interests and shared opposition to the United States and its allies. Iran seeks, and North Korea possesses, nuclear weapons in part to challenge U.S. influence and authority. Moreover, as Iran’s key supplier of ballistic missile technology since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Pyongyang has relied on Tehran for a major portion of its hard currency.

The relationship has evolved over time. As North Korea analyst John S. Park observes, “What started as a transactional relationship, where Iran provided much-needed cash to North Korea in return for missile parts and technology, has evolved into an increasingly effective partnership.” Today, the two countries seek to advance not only ballistic missile sales, but also a common strategic goal. North Korean deputy foreign minister Pak Kil Yon said during a 2011 visit to Iran that the two countries lie in “one trench” against “arrogant powers.” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told North Korean leader Kim Yong Nam the following year that the two nations have “common enemies.”

In September 2012, Iran and North Korea signed a scientific cooperation pact in Tehran that may help propel the nuclear and missile programs of both countries, according to senior U.S. government officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal. By signing the pact, said David Asher, the State Department’s coordinator for North Korea from 2001 to 2005, Iran effectively “announced to the world they are essentially allies with North Korea.” Yet the agreement merely formalized and advanced the existing reality. For years, Pyongyang’s scientists, engineers, and other personnel had worked at Iran’s nuclear facilities and sold Tehran nuclear matériel, while Iranian nuclear experts had routinely visited North Korea for consultations.

In December 2012, a Japanese news agency reported that Iran had stationed personnel at a military base in North Korea to bolster nuclear and missile cooperation. In October 2013, Iran’s First Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri told visiting North Korean Labor Minister Jong Yong Su that Tehran aims to “see relations between the two countries expand in all areas.”

Iranian officials have reportedly traveled to North Korea to witness each of its three nuclear tests — in October 2006, May 2009 and February 2013. Just before its third test, a senior American official said that “it’s very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.”

“North Korea continues to supply technology, components, and even raw materials for Iran’s HEU weaponization program,” said North Korea analyst Bruce Bechtol in February 2015. The Intelligence Community’s 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment also stated that Pyongyang’s “export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate its willingness to proliferate dangerous technologies.”

In nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 thus far, the role of North Korea has remained largely absent. Yet even if the parties reach an agreement that putatively prevents Iran from acquiring a bomb, Tehran’s cooperation with Pyongyang suggests that the Iranian nuclear program may progress outside its territory, or that the two countries will work together within Iran to bypass the deal. This troubling reality threatens to undermine the viability of an agreement, heightening rather than reducing proliferation concerns.

To resolve these problems, the United States must insist that Iran disclose the extent of its relationship with North Korea, address the military dimensions of its nuclear program, and allow anytime-anywhere access to its military sites. It should also ensure that an agreement prohibit any research and development activities that would facilitate cooperation between the two regimes.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s record to date, including the omission of the issue from the April 2 framework agreement, suggests that negotiations will proceed leaving the topic unaddressed. Under these circumstances, not one but two de facto nuclear agreements may yet emerge: between Tehran and the P5+1 and between Tehran and Pyongyang.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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