Iran is using its strategic ties to North Korea to advance its illicit nuclear weapons program, two experts for the Begin-Sadat Center wrote in a paper published Tuesday.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Dr. Refael Ofek and Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham wrote that if Iran “is unwilling to lose years to the freeze on its military nuclear program,” it is likely exploiting its military ties with North Korea to advance its progress to a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear and ballistic missile ties between the two nations are longstanding and ongoing, though unlike Iran, North Korea already has developed nuclear weapons. While Iran is temporarily constrained by the nuclear deal, it can contribute to the development of North Korea’s program by sharing its technology and through finance. “There is an irony in this, as it is thanks to its [Vienna Nuclear Deal]-spurred economic recovery that Iran is able to afford it,” Ofek and Shoham noted.
“This kind of strategic, military-technological collaboration is more than merely plausible. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that such a collaboration is already underway,” they added. In return for the boost Iran given its nuclear program, North Korea is likely “ready and able to furnish a route by which Iran can clandestinely circumvent” the nuclear deal.
The authors noted that a number of Iranian ballistic missiles are modified North Korean models. For example, Iran’s Shahab-3 missile is a variant of North Korea’s Nodong-1. The warhead on the Shahab-3 was redesigned to carry a nuclear warhead in the mid-2000s by Kamran Daneshjoo, a top Iranian scientist.
Iran carried out the calculations that were necessary to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to match the weight and dimensional specifications of the Shahab-3, then carried out benchmark tests at the secret Parchin military site, Ofek and Shoham wrote. “More significantly, Iranian experts were present at Punggye-ri, the NK nuclear test site, when such tests were carried out in the 2000s,” they added.
The North Korean-built Syrian plutonium reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007 provided Iran with another platform to advance its nuclear program, according to Ofek and Shoham. Iran financed the project, which “was probably intended as a backup for the heavy water plutonium production reactor of Iran’s military nuclear program.”
While Iran and North Korea have used different technologies to produce plutonium, both use gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, and in that technology Iran is apparently more advanced than North Korea.
Iran’s 2012 agreement to share science and technology with North Korea was “a meaningful event” that “was probably intended to mask an evolving Iranian-NK cryptic interface,” Ofek and Shoham wrote. While it was ostensibly about civil cooperation, the deal was ratified by Ali Akhbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Furthermore, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later said the deal was an “outcome of the fact that Iran and NK have common enemies, because the arrogant powers do not accept independent states,” suggesting a military component to the deal.
Ofek and Shoham posited that the 2012 agreement was intended to “compensate technologically” for Iran’s expected rollback of its nuclear program. About two months before its signing, then-President Barack Obama had told Khamenei, “We are prepared to open a direct channel to resolve the nuclear agreement if you are prepared to do the same thing and authorize it at the highest levels and engage in a serious discussion on these issues.”
Iran has also established a “permanent” delegation of ballistic missile experts in North Korea, which “supported the successful field test of a long-range ballistic missile in December 2012,” the authors noted. “The more advanced solid-fueled motor technology, which included the NK KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile and the Iranian Sajjil missile (range 2,000 km), was apparently developed collaboratively by the two countries.”
Satellite photographs publicized in December showed that a ballistic missile launch site in Geumchang-ri bore a strong resemblance to the Iranian launch site in Tabriz.
In the nuclear realm, a group Iranian experts including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who leads Iran’s nuclear weapons program, were secretly in North Korea for its 2013 nuclear test, Ofek and Shoham wrote. In contrast to North Korea’s two earlier nuclear tests, which used plutonium-core-based devices, the 2013 test is believed to have been fueled by enriched uranium. North Korea’s two nuclear tests in 2016 also possibly used enriched uranium devices.
“In 2015, information exchanges and reciprocal delegation visits reportedly took place that were aimed at the planning of nuclear warheads,” the authors noted. “These include four [North Korean] delegations that visited Iran up until June 2015, one month before the [nuclear deal] was completed.” Shortly afterwards, North Korea opened a new centrifuge facility.
Ofek and Shoham observed:
The chronology, contents, and features of the overt interface between Iran and NK mark an ongoing evolutionary process in terms of weapons technologies at the highest strategic level. The two countries have followed fairly similar nuclear and ballistic courses, with considerable, largely intended, reciprocal technological complementarity. The numerous technological common denominators that underlie the NW and ballistic missile programs of Iran and NK cannot be regarded as coincidental. Rather, they likely indicate – in conjunction with geopolitical and economic drives –a much broader degree of undisclosed interaction between Tehran and Pyongyang.
The authors urged the Trump administration to “meticulously and rigidly ascertain” that the strategic cooperation between the two rogue states is stopped.
Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett examined the possibility in December that Iran and North Korea are collaborating on nuclear weapons research in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal.
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 aided Iran’s nuclear program. North Korea sent “hundreds of nuclear experts” to work in Iran, while making “key nuclear software” available to Iranian scientists.
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