Spurred by a letter written by Sen. Ted Cruz (R – Texas) to three senior Obama administration officials, investigative journalist Claudia Rosett on Thursday examined the possibility that Iran and North Korea are collaborating on nuclear weapons research in the wake of last year’s nuclear deal.
The most salient question, Rosett wrote in Forbes, is the one Cruz addressed to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “Has the U.S. intelligence community observed any possible nuclear collaboration between Iran and North Korea…?”
She explained that the two nations have a history of collaborating on weapons development. Usually, North Korea undertakes much of the development while Iran that foots the bill, with technicians traveling back and forth between the countries.
Although there is currently no official confirmation from Washington that the two nations have collaborated in nuclear weapons development, their cooperation on ballistic missiles is well-documented. This raises the possibility, Rosett wrote, that “the two countries are also in nuclear cahoots, because ballistic missiles are basically cost-efficient only as vehicles for delivering nuclear warheads.”
While Iran has publicly scaled back parts of its nuclear program in exchange for billions in sanctions relief, “cash-hungry North Korea has never been busier,” Rosett pointed out. North Korea is believed to have carried out two nuclear tests this year, bringing the total it has conducted since 2006 to five.
Rosett observed that it is odd for Iran to “pour resources into testing ballistic missiles,” which are designed to carry nuclear warheads, if it has truly sworn off developing such weapons. This suggests that “North Korea’s nuclear program might be secretly doubling as a nuclear backshop for Iran.”
In his letter, Cruz raised concerns about a North Korean ballistic launch in September that, according to state media, had a thrust of 80-ton — enough power to carry “a heavier, or less-minaturized nuclear warhead to the United States.” The 80 tons thrust was mentioned in a January 17, 2016 press release by the Treasury Department sanctioning Iranian entities for ballistic missile procurement. “Within the past several years, Iranian missile technicians from SHIG traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government,” the release noted.
While these link do not constitute proof of nuclear collaboration, they do raise red flags, Rosett wrote. “If the silent officials of the Obama administration are confident that there has been no nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea, it’s time to put that assessment in writing and send it to Cruz,” she concluded.
Rosett’s concerns echo those expressed by Ilan Berman in the National Interest in August 2015, who wrote that for decades Iran and North Korea have forged a “formidable alliance – the centerpiece of which is cooperation on nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities.” He explained that for years reports have indicated that North Korea has actively worked to aid Iran’s nuclear program. North Korea sent “hundreds of nuclear experts” to work in Iran, while making “key nuclear software” available to Iranian scientists.
After Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in early January, retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, told Fox News, “We know that the Iranians were at the last nuclear test a couple of year ago, [and] we know that the Iranians are helping the North Koreans miniaturize their nuclear weapons.” He indicated that the North Korean nuclear program experienced several failures until it received assistance from Iran. “What does this say about our nuclear deal with Iran?” Scales asked. “It says Iran is able to circumvent it by using their technological colleagues in Pakistan and their test site facility in North Korea to push their own nuclear ambitions.” He added that “the Iranians and North Koreans are both developing long-range ballistic missiles by collaborating together.”
Later in January, researchers from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies published a research paper (.pdf) outlining Iran’s past and present military dealings with North Korea, concluding that “the signs of military and scientific cooperation between Iran and North Korea suggest that Pyongyang could have been involved in Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile program, and that state-run trading companies may have assisted in critical aspects of Iran’s illicit nuclear-related activities.” They added that more needs to be known about Iranian-North Korean cooperation, recommending a number of measures, including getting China more involved in non-proliferation efforts, increasing the study of locations where Iran and North Korea focus their efforts on procuring sanctioned technologies, and ensuring the transparency of the international financial system.
In How Iran and North Korea Became Cyber-Terror Buddies, which was published in the January 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine, Rosett offered some background on the two rogue nations’ history of joint missile development.
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 2007, a secret State Department cable made public by Wikileaks stated,
Iran and North Korea have continued their longstanding cooperation on ballistic missile technology via air-shipments of ballistic-missile related items. We assess that some of the shipments consist of ballistic missile jet vanes that frequently transit Beijing on regularly scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air.
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 Timesreported 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.
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