Iran has dispersed elements of its nuclear program to North Korea, introducing redundancy into its nuclear infrastructure that will undermine the usefulness of any deal, according to recently published articles by a range of journalists and policy analysts.
Gordon Chang of The Daily Beast highlighted the likelihood that Iran is actively conducting nuclear work on North Korean soil, and specifically working to develop and nuclear weapons. He noted that the dynamic, if confirmed, would gut the effectiveness of any nuclear deal: “Inspections inside the borders of Iran will not give the international community the assurance it needs…. while the international community inspects Iranian facilities pursuant to a framework deal, the Iranians could be busy assembling the components for a bomb elsewhere.”
The concerns would be compounded if it turns out, as The Wall Street Journal reported last Wednesday, that the P5+1 will allow Iran to put off making a full disclosure of its activity to the International Atomic Energy Agency until after sanctions relief has been granted, preventing inspectors from having a view of Iran’s activities even on their own soil. “[T]here is no point in signing a deal with just one arm of a multi-nation weapons effort. That’s why the P5+1 needs to know what is going on at that isolated military base in the mountains of North Korea,” Chang concluded.
Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), suggested in an op-ed published today in The Washington Post that Iran and North Korea likely also cooperated on the enrichment and transfer of nuclear material. They trace the development of this partnership through the autobiography of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in which he speaks of shipping oil to North Korea in return for a cryptic “special commodity.”
“Odds are good that North Korea helped to jump-start Iran’s nuclear-weapons program,” Alfoneh and Gerecht wrote. The “nefarious partnership” between North Korea and Iran, they explain, “casts serious doubt on the Obama administration’s hope that President Hassan Rouhani and his team have any intention of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
The combination would mean that Iran is conducting both enrichment and weaponization work on North Korean soil. The reports are reminiscent of developments that occurred in late 2014 and 2015, in when it was revealed that Iran was allegedly storing nuclear material and ballistic technology on Syrian soil, while maintaining effective control over it. In January, the German daily Der Spiegel revealed the existence of a nuclear facility located in an underground complex near Qusayr, Syria, along the Lebanese border. The area is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, and the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission appears to be involved as well. Experts believe the facility was built with North Korean expertise and that they are actively involved at the site.
The possibility of Iranian nuclear activity in Syria had already been raised in 2011 in an analysis by Emanuele Ottolenghi, also a senior fellow at FDD. An Iranian-funded and North Korean-built program at the Syrian site of al-Kibar, near Deir ez-Zor, would “sustain Iran’s plausible deniability about its nuclear program.” Ottolenghi pointed out. He continued: “[W]ith its covert nuclear activities in Arak exposed in 2002, Iran may have sought an alternative that could ensure a supply of weapons-grade plutonium even under the increased scrutiny of the international community.” The al-Kibar site was destroyed in 2007 in an air strike believed to have been carried out by Israel.
As noted by Alfoneh and Gerecht, Iran and North Korea have a long history of scientific cooperation. In How Iran and North Korea Became Cyber-Terror Buddies, which was published in the January 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine, Claudia Rosett provided an overview of that cooperation:
Their partnership began shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and has continued ever since. It has brought much needed cash to North Korea, the enhancement of Tehran’s military arsenal, and mutual gains through shared test results. The relationship began to flourish in earnest when North Korea supplied Iran with armaments during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Since then, the two countries have developed a series of networks involving middlemen, front companies, and transportation routes in order to evade a growing list of sanctions, enhancing their ability to traffic in more and more sophisticated weaponry.
In recent decades, this relationship has proven particularly fruitful. In 1992, for example, a North Korean freighter slipped past U.S. Navy surveillance and delivered a cargo of Scud missiles to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. In 2003, a North Korean defector testified before Congress that he traveled from North Korea to Iran in 1989 and helped the Iranians test-fire a North Korean missile. …
In 2010, a Congressional Research Service report by analyst Larry A. Niksch estimated that “North Korea earns about $1.5 billion annually from missile sales to other countries. It appears that much of this comes from missile sales and collaboration with Iran in missile development.” Also in 2010, the New York Times reported that Iran obtained 19 missiles from North Korea that were “much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal.” This too was based on a classified State Department cable made public by Wikileaks. In 2013, a report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated, “Iran has an extensive missile development program, and has received support from entities in Russia, China, and North Korea.” Among Iran’s ballistic missiles is the intermediate-range Shahab 3, based on North Korea’s No Dong missile, with a range long enough to strike Israel.
These are only a few examples. The extent of military collaboration between the two countries is enormous. North Korea supplies munitions to Iran and Iran’s terrorist clients, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as to Syria, which is dependent on Iranian support. In July 2009, authorities in Dubai searched a Bahamian-flagged, French-owned container ship, the ANL Australia, which was bound for Iran. They discovered a North Korean arms shipment including detonators for 122 mm rockets and a large quantity of solid-fuel propellant. In December 2009, Thai authorities searched a plane that stopped for refueling in Bangkok, and found it crammed with 35 tons of North Korean weapons, also bound for Iran.
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